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Busy Boris' Bearhugs

The pictureThe picture that was splashed around the world this week would have sent American policy analysts into apoplectic fits if it were taken ten years ago: the president of Russia, Boris Yeltsin, and the president of China, Jiang Zemin, locked in a bearhug. It was the classic case of the unstoppable force -- a big, tall, robust and happy-looking Yeltsin, member of a culture that exchanges kisses as greetings -- meeting the immovable object -- a smaller, impassive Jiang, member of a culture that bowed slightly as greetings, until 50 years of Communist rule stripped even that show of respect from its formal matters. The winner of a collision between the unstoppable force and the immovable object is a matter for physicists and philosophers, but the political ramifications of their meeting will be a lot of contact, a lot of friction, and a lot of sparks.

For the moment, though, the meeting between Yeltsin and Jiang seems to have generated nothing but warmth. The two nations, separated by a 2,800-mile common border over which there has been occasional armed conflicts over the past three decades, have decided to sign a treaty to finalize the border geography once and for all. They also spoke about how to further the anemic levels of trade between them, not expected this year to reach the relatively low $7 billion level they met in 1996. (Comparatively, China's 1996 trade with Japan was $60 billion.) The two sides have set a target of annual trade of $20 billion by 2000, but one component of this trade is troubling. Russia's major export to China, unfortunately, is military hardware that the cash-starved but weapons-rich Russian army is selling in order to feed its soldiers. While this does help Russia feed its hungry (and armed, and therefore potentially dangerous) mouths, it also furthers China's military prowess. Currently, China's army is gigantic in terms of manpower, but no real threat due to its ancient and poorly maintained equipment. The military hardware it obtains from Russia lifts its military readiness a notch or two, even if it still has dozens of notches to go before it can accomplish even modest goals. But Boris' visit will help ensure that China's newfound military strength will be pointed well away from the Bear.

Boris was not busy just in Beijing this month, though. He also held a summit with Japanese Prime Minister Hashimoto Ryutaro in the Russian city of Krasnoyarsk (about halfway between Tokyo and Moscow). It might not have been a bear hug, but Yeltsin and Hashimoto stood arm in arm, vigorously shaking hands in the lightly falling snow, after announcing the similarly hopeful results of their summit.

The major issue on the table was a potential resolution to the issue of the Kurile Islands, a group of small islands to the north of Japan, and claimed by both nations. Whose islands they in antiquity has long been debated, but Japan snatched them from Russia in their war of 1904-05 (claiming they were Japanese territory to begin with), and the Soviet Union snatched them back after Japan's loss in 1945 (claiming they were Russian territory to begin with). While the islands themselves are of some real value (they may contain oil reserves, and their waters are rich with fish), the more important value was national pride. Right-wingers and nationalists in Japan and Russia alike oppose any conciliatory talks on the subject and, until now, Yeltsin had not been strong enough in the Duma to be able to raise the issue without political threats from the hard-core ex-Communists. Hashimoto, whose opinion polls are still lagging two months after nominating a convicted felon to his cabinet post (and sacking him shortly afterwards), apparently figured that the right-wing pressure was worth the publicity to be gained from such a high-profile meeting. Although no agreement came out of this summit, the two leaders agreed to sign a treaty on the islands by the year 2000, so Yeltsin and Hashimoto were also able to boost both men's domestic stature as internationally important figures, while not actually settling anything that would offend their domestic constituencies.

China and Japan, the countries with the most strained relationship in this "iron triangle," did not pass up the friendliness in the air this month, as Chinese President Li Peng visited Tokyo for talks with Hashimoto, who visited China in September, as well as other Cabinet officials. One of the most heatedly discussed topics between these two nations was the recent revision of the US-Japan security treaty, which omits any specific mention of China, but allows for US-Japan military cooperation in "certain areas" which may affect Japan. China, of course, fears that the treaty is aimed at preventing a Chinese rise in power, and it is probably justified in this worry. Hashimoto failed to allay China's concerns in September, and it is doubtful that any more progress will be made on this issue during this summit. Then again, the uncertainty in this case may work in favor of peace: any hint that America would not take military action potentially endangers Taiwan and the South China Sea, and any hint of outright American aggression endangers rather important US-China ties.

Japan and China also discussed trade -- specifically strategies to speed Chinese accession to the World Trade Organization -- and increasing Japanese aid to China. Hashimoto promised $11 million for training to reduce infant mortality, and $29 million in new aid for China's water supply and river control projects. Considering that poor river control and the resultant floods were one of the contributing factors of the 1959-60 starvation, this latter item may be more important than it seems.

So, with China, Japan and Russia meeting, hugging and promising closer cooperation, what should American reactions be? Naturally, the three Asian powers reject any suggestions that their closer cooperation (they all specifically reject the word "alliance") is meant to threaten any other nation, particularly the US. "I think the bilateral relationship is a strategic partnership of equality and mutual respect. We will not form an alliance, and this kind of long-term relationship is not directed against another country," said Jiang. Yeltsin argued that "the harmonization of relations between the four great Pacific powers is very important," adding the U.S. to Russia, China, and Japan. And one of Hashimoto's concerns in the recent summits has been to reassure Russia and China that the U.S.-Japan military alliance is not threatening, but rather, a purely defensive measure.

But there are doubters in all camps. According to the Russian weekly Moskovskiye Novosti, Yeltsin's real motive in travelling to Beijing, was "to flesh out his vision of a 'multi-polar world' in which no single power -- namely the United States -- would be allowed to dominate.... Yeltsin is ready to cross five time zones in order not to yield any advantage to his friend Bill Clinton." One member of the press asked at a recent White House news conference if there was "a new China" that "doesn't have the same kind of need for the United States that it once had." These kinds of questions, although answered emphatically in the negative by their respective governments, are in the backs of everyone's heads. Any two of these countries together creates a powerful alliance. But the fact that all three are meeting with each other, and with the United States, should be cause for nothing but happy faces in the U.S. State Department. Friendlier ties and more trade will not harm American interests, but instead should make negotiating in a historically complex region far easier. As long as Boris saves some of his bear hugs for the Americans, his new, happy, huggy attitude is in the best interests of all four Asian powers.

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