Jeffrey LewisDid Yang Jiechi Lose it?

Or are Japanese officials just having some fun at his expense?

Japanese officials are leaking an account of an exchange between Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and Japanese Foreign Minister Okada.

The basic story is that Okada on May 15 twice pressed Yang on the subject of reducing China’s nuclear forces — once at a bilateral, and again in a trilateral meeting with South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung Hwan.

Asahi carried a bland description of the meeting, noting that it is “perhaps the first” time Japan has used a ministerial-level meeting to raise the issue of reducing the number of Chinese nuclear weapons.

Yeah, I’ll say.

According to other accounts — which appear to be based largely on Japanese diplomatic sources — Yang became visibly upset with Okada for raising the issue the second time, with Yang’s reaction ranging anywhere from “showing tension in his face” to “scream[ing] at Okada that his relatives had been killed by Japanese … during World War II.” (The sources are Kyodo and John Pomfret in the Washington Post).

The initial Chinese account of the meeting shows no hint of distress, though a spokesperson later confirmed that Yang “rebutted” comments by Okada regarding China’s nuclear weapons.

There are at least two interesting things beyond the mere prurient interest in one diplomat losing his sh*t in a ministerial.

First, the Chinese response appears to be driven in part by a sense among Chinese officials that Japan lacks standing to ask about China’s nuclear forces. That doesn’t come through in the press reports, but it is an important undercurrent. Chinese and Japanese describe China’s nuclear forces very differently from each other. Where Chinese officials put their nuclear forces in a bilateral US-China context, Japanese officials see China’s nuclear modernization as a piece with its broader military modernization, including conventionally armed ballistic and cruise missiles, which affects regional stability. (Indeed, Japanese officials make virtually no distinction between China’s ballistic missiles, categorizing them as nuclear capable whether they are armed as such or not.) It seems to me one goal of any US-China dialogue on strategic stability is going to be prompting the Chinese to accept that their nuclear forces cast a shadow on the regional security situation.

Second, Japanese officials are gleefully leaking the details of the meeting, which I suppose shows Okada in a relatively good light. If the Chinese are to get over their reluctance to talk to the Japanese about regional security issues, Japanese officials probably shouldn’t be making them look like raving lunatics in the press.

But that’s just me.

Third, I don’t think Japanese officials will be trying this particular tack again. There is, in any event, a better approach — the Evans-Kawaguchi Report recommended that the nuclear powers move to a “minimization point” of no more than 2,000 total nuclear warheads in the world by 2025 (with half of those in the United States and Russia.)

This “minimization point” includes “at least no increases (and desirably significant reductions) in the arsenals of the other nuclear-armed states.” My sense is that Japanese officials will make this general point about reducing the number of nuclear weapons, leaving it to listeners to conclude which country might be out of step with this call.

I will try to follow up on this little exchange while I am in Tokyo. In the meantime, here are the major accounts of the contretemps. Feel free to add more in the comments section.

Kyodo — citing “several diplomatic sources” — has the most restrained account, with Yang merely showing “tension” on his face (though it describes him as enraged):

Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi became enraged by his Japanese counterpart Katsuya Okada’s repeated calls for a reduction in China’s nuclear arsenal when they met Saturday and nearly walked out of the talks, several diplomatic sources said Tuesday.

During a trilateral meeting in the ancient South Korean city of Gyeongju, which also involved South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung Hwan, Okada told Yang that China should “at least make efforts not to increase” the number of its nuclear weapons and “show its commitment” to nuclear disarmament.

With tension showing on his face, Yang maintained that Beijing’s nuclear policy is restrained and insisted that the issue was not a suitable agenda item for the meeting, which was intended to deepen the partnership between the three countries.

Despite Yang’s claim, Okada continued his arguments and the Chinese minister hit back in Chinese — at one point looking likely to leave the gathering — saying he could no longer participate under such conditions, the sources said.

Although Yang decided not to walk out, he later lodged a protest against Okada through diplomatic channels, saying he had been rude.

The Wall Street Journal’s Jay Solomon et al.— citing “people familiar with the exchange” — suggests Yang “yelled” at Okada:

On May 15, Japanese and Chinese diplomats publicly sparred at a meeting in South Korea, after Tokyo’s Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada pressed Beijing to shrink, or at least not increase, its nuclear-weapons arsenal. Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi countered that Beijing’s nuclear strategy was clear and its position on disarmament widely recognized.

But Mr. Okada repeated his remarks at a trilateral meeting with South Korea’s chief diplomat. According to people familiar with the exchange, Mr. Yang became so upset that he started yelling at Mr. Okada. A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman later called Mr. Okada’s remarks “irresponsible.”

John Pomfret in the Washington Post — citing “diplomatic sources,” including “a Japanese official” who gets in a dig at Yang — has Yang “screaming” at Okada about Japanese atrocities in China:

And on May 15, during negotiations between Japan, South Korea and China, China’s foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, erupted at his Japanese counterpart, Katsuya Okada, after Okada suggested that China cut its nuclear arsenal. Yang almost left the talks in the South Korean city of Gyeongju, according to diplomatic sources, and screamed at Okada that his relatives had been killed by Japanese forces in northeastern China during Japan’s occupation of China during World War II.

Okada was shocked, a Japanese official said.

“He’s always been a peace lover,” the official said. “I guess the Chinese felt like yelling.”


  1. Jun Okumura (History)


    MOFA Minister Okada stated on 18 May during his regular press briefing that he had briefed Japanese reporters on 15 May regarding his comments towards his Chinese counterpart. He revisited the issue on 21 May during his next briefing, saying:

    I said [to the Chinese foreign minister, “While we are moving as a whole towards a world without nuclear weapons—of course the US and Russia already reached an agreement on nuclear weapons reduction, and the UK and France are also reducing [their nuclear weapons]—but unfortunately, China is increasing [its own]. In this regard, we want China to reduce [it nuclear weapons], or at least keep them at their current level.”
    「今、全体が核なき世界に向かっている中で、残念ながら、もちろん、米ロは先に核軍縮の合意に達しましたし、イギリスもフランスも減らしている。残念なが ら中国は増やしている。そのことに対して、減らすか、或いは少なくとも現状維持にしてもらいたい」

    The Chinese authorities tend to react harshly and negatively on challenges regarding national security issues (as well as what they consider domestic issues), especially when they are confronted publicly. Here, the presence of their South Korean counterpart may have had some influence on the response.

    That said, the flash in overseas Kyodo dispatches is sometimes obtained at the expense of proper provenance, as our mutual acquaintance in Tokyo will readily testify. And there’s a subtle disconnect between John Pomfret’s “diplomatic sources” and his breezy “Japanese diplomat.” Dare I say this story has been photoshopped, if only lightly so?

  2. dylan (History)

    I’d suggest there is more going on here than just international relations. Yang is from Shanghai, his elder brother Yang Jiemian is head of SIIS, and both are close to former Shanghai and Chinese leader Jiang Zemin.

    Jiang has made one of the points of difference between himself and current General Secretary Hu Jintao their respective Japan policies. Jiang and his associates seek to paint themselves as staunch nationalists when it comes to Japan (in the wake of the anti-Japanese riots a few years ago, Jiang and some cronies pointedly made a pilgrimage to the Nanjing Massacre shrine). By reacting sharply to Okada, Yang was upholding the Shanghai-clique policy of not taking a backward step – and in a subtle way showing up the ‘appeasement’ policies of the current General Secretary.