It may not sound like much a of summit meeting -- a 25 minute impromptu meeting in the hallway outside the main dining room at the ASEM Summit -- but the face-to-face meeting between Prime Minister Kan Naoto and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao represents a significant diplomatic victory for the Japanese side.
I tend to agree with Peter Ennis of Dispatch Japan that the Japanese government succeeded in getting pretty much all it could hope for out of the confrontation with China over the arrest of the Chinese fishing boat captain near the Senkaku Islands.
- Make the Chinese government look like an out-of-control freight train? Check.
- Call into question who is running the show in Beijing? Check.
- Nudge the United States into stating unequivocally that the defense of the Senkaku Islands would be covered by the Japan-U.S. Security Arrangements? Check.
- Have the captain freed by a minor functionary, making it possible for the Japan's political leaders to claim (implausibly, it is true) that they had nothing to do with the decision? Check.
- Have the minor functionary read off a list of completely nonsensical reasons for taking the action he was taking, making it absolutely clear that he was reading something someone higher up (Where? Who knows?) wrote up for him to read? Check.
However, the Japanese government did lose out on one extremely important request that it made early on -- that there be immediate high level talks between leaders in Tokyo and Beijing in order to defuse the situation. That request, made by Chief Cabinet Secretary Sengoku Yoshito, was utterly ignored by the Chinese side. Amongst all the ratcheting up of tensions, mostly on the Chinese side of the ledger, the failure to have its appeal for high level talks honored was the one turning point in the drama where the Japanese side could truly be said to have lost face.
Hence the importance of today's meeting in the hallway between Kan and Wen. The Japanese side went to Brussels without anything in the bag -- only a vague sense of China's intention to improve relations. Securing a high-level bilateral meeting, even under the most restrained of circumstances, plugs a huge hole in Japan's credibility after its valiant climbdown from its dangerously out-of-control confrontation with China last month.
Whether the domestic media, particularly the weekly magazines, which have gone berserk over Japan's supposed humiliation by China, give the government a thimblefull of credit for at last receiving what it had asked for at the very beginning of the crisis, is, of course, highly doubtful.