Tea Leaf Nation

Look Who's Not Talking

Behind the scenes, the Chinese and Japanese governments are barely communicating. That should worry us all.

TOKYO -- The world's second and third biggest economies are not talking -- and that spells trouble far beyond Northeast Asia. In early July, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced the most significant revision to Japan's security policy since the end of World War II, partly in response to Chinese incursions into Japanese territorial waters in the East China Sea, where a dangerous standoff is underway over a cluster of small islands known as the Diaoyu in China and the Senkaku in Japan. While Abe's new policy has generated concerns about Japan's potential remilitarization, Washington has welcomed it as a vital boost to the U.S.-Japanese security alliance. Yet conversations with senior national security officials in Tokyo in mid-July reveal a striking absence of the bilateral communication channels necessary to defuse growing tensions between Asia's two major powers.

High-level Japan-China talks have been in a deep freeze ever since the Japanese Government nationalized three of the Senkaku/Diaoyu in Sept. 2012, opening a prolonged diplomatic rift. Japan's Ambassador in Beijing, Japanese sources say, lacks access to the Chinese Foreign Minister. Notwithstanding a brief and positive interaction between the two sides' navy chiefs at a symposium in the Chinese port city Qingdao in April, discussions on an important maritime communication mechanism have been on hold since June 2012. When a Chinese frigate aimed weapons-guiding radar at a Japanese destroyer in Feb. 2013, no known hotline was in place to defuse the situation.

In 2013 alone, Abe crisscrossed the Asia-Pacific to deepen regional partnerships, spanning all 10 countries in the regional block Association of Southeast Asian Nations, then added visits to Australia, New Zealand, and Papua New Guinea in July. But he has not had a single bilateral meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping. This is not for want of effort; in July, Abe expressed a desire to meet with Xi at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in November in Beijing, while a senior Japanese official reportedly secretly visited China to explore the possibility of such a meeting. But a Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman has avowed that Abe's Dec. 2013 visit to Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japan's war dead including 14 war criminals, has "shut the door on talks with Chinese leaders."

Encouraging evidence is scant. Senior Japanese opposition politicians traveled to China in July to meet with senior officials there, including Liu Yunshan, a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, the group of seven men that runs the country. But such contacts, while valuable, cannot substitute for the institutionalized mechanisms needed to deescalate a potential incident in the East China Sea. Those channels that remain open have serious limits. Japan has used working-level talks to communicate on national security matters with Chinese officials, but Japanese counterparts say they have encountered a lack of reciprocity and transparency that may chill further information sharing. And while Japanese trade officials note the Chinese have sent "clear signals" they want economic ties to stay on track -- the only Minister-level bilateral meeting that has occurred since Sept. 2012 has been between Japan's Minister of Economy, Trade, and Industry and his Chinese counterpart -- business is increasingly hostage to the politics of the relationship. In the first half of 2014, Japanese investment in China plunged 50 percent.

As a result of this silence, the risk of an inadvertent escalatory incident in the East China Sea is high. Japanese officials frame their new security policy as one driven by their desire to make a "proactive contribution to peace," but it's undergirded by deep-seated anxiety about China's growing military power and assertiveness, the shifting balance of power in Asia, and a desire to be independent from what former Japanese ambassador to Italy Masamichi Hanabusa calls "the benevolence of other nations" like the United States.

A key driver of the new policy is China's pattern of repeated incursions into Japanese waters around the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu, which includes not only the Feb. 2013 frigate radar scare but also two Chinese fighter jets' alarming decision to fly within 50 meters of Japanese surveillance planes in June. Abe's policy would enable the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) to respond to such provocations, which fall short of an armed attack and thus currently preclude the JSDF from responding. But ambivalence over a possible deviation from Japan's pacifist Constitution, which in its text "forever renounce[s] war as a sovereign right," helped drive Abe's approval ratings down by nine points the month after the policy was announced. Japan's National Diet must pass legislation putting the policy into practice, and that push has been deferred until 2015.

Washington, which has already declared that its security treaty with Japan encompasses the Senkakus, applauds Abe's policy. But while an ambivalent Japanese public considers the measure, Washington can do more diplomatically simply by adapting successful tactics it has already applied this year. President Barack Obama should offer to host a quadrilateral meeting on the sidelines of the upcoming APEC summit in November with Xi, Abe, and South Korean President Park Geun-hye -- an extension of his trilateral meeting with the latter two in March. Xi's inclusion would demonstrate that U.S. alliances with Japan and South Korea are not directed at containing China. The administration should also quietly suggest a freeze on escalatory activity in the East China Sea, akin to the one the U.S. State Department proposed in the South China Sea in early July.

To be sure, some analysts in Japan question the alarm with which the international community views the situation in the East China Sea. They caution that China recognizes Japan's robust naval capabilities and that, as a result, according to a retired Japanese admiral who did not wish to be named, the dispute will likely "fly level at high tension." But that's no solution. As the military gap between the two countries grows -- China's defense expenditures have grown by double digits almost every year for the past two decades and its military budget far eclipses Japan's -- political and diplomatic off-ramps will be all the more vital to avoid a collision. The peace and prosperity that has allowed Northeast Asia to emerge as the engine of the 21st century global economy is too precious to lose over a simple failure to communicate.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Huangdan2060

Tea Leaf Nation

The New Website That Has China Buzzing

"Pengpai" has tens of millions of dollars in funding, and everyone in journalism is talking about it. But no one seems pleased.

The chief executive officer of The Paper, a slick new state-funded Chinese media site at thepaper.cn, launched his venture in a most unusual fashion: with a nostalgic confessional about a drunken night during his senior year in college in 1990. Qiu Bing described a young couple whom he had been friends with while an undergraduate, and how they left each other love notes in bottles and stashed them in a campus pond. It was a time before egoism and consumerism had taken hold of his country, waxed Qiu. The emotions of that era were "surging" up in him again, he said, using the word pengpai, also the Chinese name of the new website. It was a riveting read and a masterstroke in marketing. Buoyed in part by the essay, the site's clean look, and the venture's rumored big budget, the formal launch of The Paper and its iPhone and Android apps on July 22 triggered a huge buzz on social media and among journalists. "I've been waiting for this a long time," wrote one reader in the comments section below Qiu's piece.

Much of the discussion surrounding the new venture has involved trying to classify the beast, a hybrid with a clean new-media style gloss but, some argue, a conservative and self-censoring core. Wen Yunchao, a blogger and free-speech advocate based in New York, told Foreign Policy that although The Paper resembles "the Huffington Post or Hong Kong media on the surface," its essence is "not much different from other media in China." Wen said that the outlet touts itself as new media but its "definition of new is only in comparison to the rigid face of traditional party media," meaning media directly controlled by the ruling Communist Party.

Other observers were more generous in their assessments. The Global Times -- which, it's worth noting, is itself a party mouthpiece -- called The Paper a "trailblazer." Financial Times columnist and new-media entrepreneur Xu Danei wrote on July 23 on microblogging platform Weibo that the appearance of The Paper marked the biggest Chinese media splash since uber-influential muckraking journalist Hu Shuli kicked off Caixin, her second big financial news magazine, back in January 2010. Xu said The Paper's initial investment from state-run Shanghai United Media Group had first been reported in the ballpark of $16 million; that estimate doubled to $32 million in a February news report by Beijing-based financial magazine Caijing reporter Luo Changping. Currently swirling estimates now stand at $64 million, Xu wrote without citing sources. Xu told FP via mobile discussion platform WeChat that The Paper seemed to be trying to compete with Caixin for market share, though he said the former seemed to have a broader scope of coverage and looked set to outpace Caixin in terms of volume, since The Paper updates daily and Caixin publishes a weekly and a biweekly magazine.

The Paper has likely been on the savvy Hu's radar for some time; it is an offshoot of the well-known Oriental Morning Post in Shanghai, a state-run paper known for breaking the explosive September 2008 news that Chinese dairy company Sanlu was one of the companies behind a tainted milk scandal that would eventually kill six babies and sicken hundreds of thousands. But the Post's reputation hasn't been entirely heroic. The journalist who broke that story, Jian Guangzhou, dramatically quit in October 2012, saying his ideals had been crushed by his time on the job. Jian later famously told California-based McClatchy news service that working in journalism in China was like "dancing in shackles." (According to a web search, Jian now works as a freelancer.)*

The Paper doesn't appear to signal the imminent breaking of these shackles. But it does look like a news site trying to find the sweet spot where public service journalism converges with party objectives. Since taking over as China's top leader in November 2012, Xi Jinping has pushed an aggressive anti-corruption campaign and also urged a more forthright line from the government, railing against what he calls "empty talk" and impenetrable jargon from long-winded officials. Xi's initiatives seem to offer an opening for a media outlet producing plainspoken reportage about corruption and abuse of power. The Paper appeared to be testing that proposition with a daring expose about health problems at a mercury mine in the poor mountainous Guizhou province. Another looked at excessive spending on a construction project in poverty-stricken Laifeng county in central Hubei province. At least two pieces on alleged miscarriages of justice have prompted lightning-fast public responses (in less than 10 hours) from the courts involved, one in Anhui province and another in Guangxi province. The stories prompted one reader to ask in the comment section: "Which court will be getting your memo tomorrow?"

Recent accomplishments aside, The Paper is a venture that so far intrigues many while satisfying few. For leftist (read: conservative) commentator Zhang Hongliang, the site is too liberal. He wrote in a July 21 piece for the conservative Revival Web that The Paper was meant to be part of efforts to restore ideology in China but that the project so far was "a waste of money." Meanwhile, Shanghai Jiaotong University design professor Wei Wuhui asked, "Where's the innovation?" in a July 23 article about The Paper. He said that the editors face an uphill battle if they really want to embrace a "new media" model because that would require user-generated content, something that is extremely hard to police.

Others saw the site as old wine in a new bottle. Jeremy Goldkorn, founder and director of Danwei, a Beijing-based research and media services business, told FP via email that although The Paper might have "a flashy new website and new media savvy," it doesn't look poised to revolutionize the Chinese media environment. He pointed to the recent visit to The Paper headquarters by Lu Wei, the chairman of the government's State Internet Information Office, which oversees China's extensive web censorship. The visit and The Paper's prominent coverage thereof, complete with online photos, indicated to Goldkorn that The Paper was "not going to be speaking truth to power anytime soon, even if they do master the dark arts of click-bait and listicles."

And yet, perhaps Qiu's nostalgia is more than posturing. An analysis of his essay by Wei Yingjie, a columnist for Caijing, said some have read the piece as espousing idealism, others as embracing realism. But Wei offered a third reading, complex but perhaps more intriguing: Maybe the narrator is a "pragmatist holding on to ideals in a world of realities."

Correction, July 23, 2014: The 2008 tainted-milk scandal in China killed six babies and sickened hundreds of thousands. An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the scandal killed dozens of babies and sickened tens of thousands. (Return to reading.)

Photo: thepaper.cn/Fair Use