Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe came to Washington for the weekend. High on his agenda was a handful of tiny, rocky islets in the East China Sea—islets claimed by both Japan and China. He came to Washington hoping to get a powerful endorsement from Obama for his country’s claim. Chinese media is gleefully reporting Abe’s failure in that quest.
Falling short of Abe’s expectation of prodding the US into taking sides with Japan in its spiraling dispute with China over the Diaoyu Islands, where tension has risen since the Japanese government “nationalized” parts of the islands last year, Washington this time intentionally shunned the issue, refraining from clearly throwing its support behind Tokyo.
When Abe finally met with Obama at the Oval Office on Friday, he scarcely got the same high-profile reception as other heads of state who visited Washington.
Instead of holding a joint large-scale press conference after the talks with Obama on Friday, the US arranged only a short, scaled-down news briefing. And during the news briefing, Obama never once mentioned China or the tension over the Diaoyu Islands.
Observers should note two important things about how Abe’s trip to the U.S. was perceived in China. First, the good news: China is trying to keep its relationship with Washington unaffected by territorial disputes with Japan. A number of articles in the Chinese press celebrated the Obama administration’s intentional decision to play down the dispute.
Second, China (or ultra-nationalist factions in China) may think that it is successfully driving a wedge between the two Pacific allies. If that is what’s happening, we should expect further pressure from China against Japan in the islands dispute. Indeed, during Abe’s meetings in Washington, three Chinese government ships patrolled near the disputed islands, and one fisheries patrol boat entered Japanese waters but left after about an hour, watched closely by the Japanese coast guard.