No. 12 — March 24, 2000


Weekly Review

--- by Marc Castellano

Premier Zhu Rongji announced March 15 that the People's Republic of China will not join the summit of the leaders of the Group of Seven industrialized nations plus Russia, scheduled for July 21 to July 23 in Nago, Okinawa prefecture. Moreover, Mr. Zhu's planned visit to Japan this year will have "no relation to the G-8 summit." Beijing's cool response to Tokyo's unofficial invitation to attend the G-8 gathering, initially extended last fall, has been a diplomatic embarrassment for Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, chairman of the 2000 summit.

The trouble started when Takenori Kanzaki, chief of the New Komeito, a partner in the governing coalition that includes the Liberal Democratic Party and the Liberal Party, led an unofficial delegation to Beijing last November to sound out China's interest in attending the Okinawan summit. At that time, Vice President Hu Jintao expressed strong reservations about China's participation, even as an observer. However, because Beijing did not officially reject the proposal, the offer was left on the table.

The dialogue heated up in mid-February, when Tokyo indicated that it would consult with other G-8 capitals on the issue. Washington signaled that it would not oppose observer status for China. At the same time, though, White House insiders expressed decided caution about letting Beijing sit at the negotiating table. Chief Cabinet Secretary Mikio Aoki then suggested that if China did not participate, a get-together between Mr. Obuchi and Mr. Rongji, planned for October following this year's Asia-Europe meeting, might be rescheduled to take place before the Okinawan summit. Chinese policymakers effectively rejected this idea, saying that arranging an early visit would be "difficult." Nevertheless, a senior LDP official expressed hope that discussions about China's possible participation could be continued in early April, when an aide to President Jiang Zemin will visit Japan.

Despite these efforts, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzao said February 22 that China "has made it clear on many occasions that it has no intention to attend the G-8 summit and other related activities." Yet Tokyo did not interpret this statement as a definitive response and said that it would continue to pursue the possibility. However, Washington hardened its stance in early March, stating that it did not officially support China's presence at the summit. A few days later, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs acknowledged the lack of a G-8 consensus in support of China's participation in the group. With Mr. Rongji's recent comments — and, for the first time, a personal, categorical rejection of Tokyo's overtures — Mr. Obuchi no doubt will drop the issue and begin focusing on ways to save face.

The story behind the diplomatic gaffe reflects good intentions as well as poor judgment. Because Japan is the only Asian member of the G-8 and will be chairing the 2000 meeting, Mr. Obuchi has given priority to having "Asian voices" heard at the summit. To that end, he has actively solicited the opinions of regional leaders. In January, the prime minister traveled to Cambodia, Laos and Thailand to sound out the concerns of influentials in these three Southeast Asian countries (see JEI Report No. 3B, January 21, 2000). More recently, Mr. Obuchi attended the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development in Bangkok to confer with officials representing the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations as well as participants from other Asian nations (see JEI Report No. 7B, February 18, 2000).

The idea of formally inviting China to join the G-8 summit grew out of a suggestion made by German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder during an official visit to Tokyo last November (see JEI Report No. 43B, November 12, 1999). Mr. Obuchi's response was enthusiastic. The premier, faced with declining popularity and elections within the next year for the Diet's lower house, apparently thought that arranging China's attendance at the summit would be a diplomatic coup. Soon afterward, he dispatched a high-level delegation to Beijing — perhaps overlooking some important considerations.

Since North Atlantic Treaty Organization aircraft mistakenly bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade last May, Beijing has made it clear that it will deal with no international organization but the U.N. Moreover, the politburo generally opposes the core principles of the G-8, a group that includes seven full-fledged democracies — Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Japan and the United States.

Tokyo is keen to expand its role as a regional leader. Being the voice of Asia at the Okinawan summit may serve that purpose. However, attempting to bring China into the G-8 fold is neither realistic nor practical. Beijing not only is skeptical about Japan's leadership intentions but also is an outsider, deliberately shunning the democratic club of rich nations.

The views expressed in this report are those of the author
and do not necessarily represent those of the Japan Economic Institute

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