China’s foreign minister strongly rejected remarks by the Japanese prime minister comparing tensions between the two countries to rivalry between Germany and Britain before the first world war, saying Japan should recognise its past aggression.
In an interview with the Financial Times, Wang Yi, acknowledged that the Sino-Japanese relationship was “very bad”. He described Shinzo Abe’s remarks as “total disorder of time and space”, saying they were a misjudgment that bore no relevance to modern China or the situation in the region.
“I was rather baffled by his remarks. This is my first reaction,” Mr Wang said. “China is a country committed to peace. If the Japanese leader cared to have a close look at his country’s record, it would be made clear to all who has been the troublemaker. And who has been the aggressor.”
Mr Abe stunned his audience in Davos on Wednesday, when he drew a parallel, albeit discursively, between heightened tensions in the Pacific and great power rivalry before the outbreak of war in 1914. The Japanese government later insisted that Mr Abe had been mistranslated. Mr Wang said the only “similar situation” to the build-up before the first world war was that China and Japan, like Britain and Germany a century ago, were big trading partners.
China and Japan are at loggerheads over conflicting claims to a string of disputed islands in the East China Sea. Mr Abe also argued in Davos that a key source of instability in the Pacific region was the steady rise in Chinese military spending which, he said, was increasing by 10 per cent a year. Meanwhile, Mr Abe’s recent visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, where some Japanese war criminals from the second world war are commemorated, has enraged Chinese opinion.
Asked if China ruled out military action if diplomacy failed to resolve disputes with Tokyo, Mr Wang said: “Diplomacy must go all the way to secure the best possible prospect [of resolving conflicts]. Otherwise, why do we need diplomats??.?.?.?If you choose to think that [military] way, you may end up with a pessimistic outlook,” Mr Wang said.
Mr Wang, a former Chinese ambassador to Japan, is leading the Chinese government delegation in Davos, but China’s foreign policy is set by a Communist party committee of which he is only a mid-ranking member.
Mr Wang said there was “nothing to be uncomfortable about” in Washington’s so-called “pivot” towards Asia, but said the region was a “test” of the two powers’ ability to build a non-confrontational relationship.
“We respect that historically US has its interests in the region. We, of course, wanted the US to respect China’s regional interests as well.”
Sino-US relations remained the cornerstone of China’s diplomacy, he said. “The issue of trust between China and the US is about setting the expectations. The direction of this relationship not only affects our countries but the rest of world.
On the sensitive issue of China’s relations with North Korea, Mr Wang admitted there were differences over Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programme.
“North Korea is one of China’s important neighbours. Our two nations, for historical reasons, had enjoyed traditional friendship that we value. For any normal country-to-country [bilateral] relationship, it’s impossible to agree on everything, even brothers from the same family can’t agree on everything. We do have differences on some issues and one of the issues being the nuclear programme. China’s position is clear. We wanted the Korean Peninsula to be a nuclear-free zone. China will not allow anyone to make troubles at our door step but the North Korean’s reasonable security concern should also be addressed. “
Asked if Beijing’s influence over the North Korea was waning, he paused and answered with a smile:
“The outside world has often misjudged the influence China has over the North Korea, which is not surprising. Fundamentally, the tie between the two countries is a nation-to-nation relationship.”