Abe's China remarks dent summit hopes

TOKYO - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's criticism of China's military activities during his just-ended European tour appears to have jeopardised the latest efforts by Tokyo and Beijing officials to realise summit talks between their two governments.

Mr Abe, who returned home yesterday after a nine-day visit to six European nations, had blasted China's military expansion and provocations in East Asia in a speech in Brussels on Tuesday.

"China's foreign policy approach and its military developments have become issues of concern for the international community, including Japan," he told the North Atlantic Council, the governing body of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.

He said China's military spending "lacks transparency", forcing South-east Asian nations to raise their own defence budgets in response.

Mr Abe also pointed to "frequent attempts to unilaterally change the status quo by force or coercion" in the East China and South China seas, in a veiled reference to Beijing's increasing provocation over several groups of disputed islands in the region.

The Japanese leader is said to have made similar remarks in his meetings with European Union leaders, using the Russian annexation of Crimea as an illustration.

China's former foreign minister Tang Jiaxuan, meeting a delegation of Japanese lawmakers on Wednesday, slammed Mr Abe for talking about the Chinese threat, saying it was no way to earn China's confidence. "He is spreading stories around the world about China's threat. This will not gain the trust of China," said Mr Tang.

Earlier this week, the official had agreed to transmit a message from Mr Abe to China's top leadership in which the Japanese premier said he would like to meet Chinese leader Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in November, which Beijing will host.

The message was delivered by visiting former Japanese foreign minister Masahiko Koumura, who was in Beijing for talks with senior Chinese leaders.

On Wednesday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hua Chunying also reiterated that a China-Japan summit would be difficult if Mr Abe did not show sincerity through actions. "He attacks China, telling everyone about the Chinese threat with malicious intent," she said.

But at a press conference in Brussels the same day, Mr Abe indicated he was eager to meet President Xi, saying "his door was always open" for dialogue.

Experts say Mr Abe does not see why the subject of China's military budget and activities should be regarded as criticism.

"Mr Abe sees himself as merely stating views shared by not only the Japanese and Americans, but also by most countries in the Asia-Pacific region," said China scholar Koichi Sato of J.F. Oberlin University in Tokyo.

"That is why Mr Abe tells China, 'Let's work on confidence- building, let's talk without reserve, the door is open,'" added Professor Sato.

Besides seeking support from European leaders for his economic and security policies, Mr Abe had also hoped to use his trip to win agreement for the early conclusion of free trade negotiations between Japan and the EU, which were launched in April last year.

Japan wants to sell more cars and TVs to the EU, while the latter wants Tokyo to lift non-tariff barriers such as rules on the safety of cars and medical equipment.

But EU leaders remain divided. While Britain and Germany agreed with Mr Abe that the free trade talks should be concluded by next year, France declined to give a target year, saying only "the near future".


This article was published on May 9 in The Straits Times.

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