Sino-Japanese relations got off to a rocky start in January.
Chinese Ambassador to the UK Liu Xiaoming kicked off a tit for tat diplomatic spat on the first day of the year. In the first paragraph of an op-ed published in The Telegraph, Liu likened Japanese militarism to Lord Voldemort, of Harry Potter notoriety. He denounced Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's end of year visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, and said Abe is doing 'his upmost to beautify (Japan's) history of militaristic aggression and colonial rule.'
Japanese Ambassador Keiichi Hayashi responded in kind on January 5. Mr. Hayashi managed to summon the wizardly analogy even earlier in his Telegraph op-ed, titled 'China risks becoming Asia's Voldemort.'
The two ambassadors appeared on Newsnight with Jeremy Paxman on January 8 (video above). They refused to be seated together. Paxman, in typical pugilistic style, focused his line of questioning on the Diaoyu-Senkaku Islands. Unsurprisingly, the ambassadors disagreed on everything, including on whether there was disagreement in the first place.
Ambassador Liu arguably comes out on top in the interview, despite wrongly asserting that the Cairo Declaration was issued in 1945 (it was 1943). The declaration called for the return of all territories occupied by Japan, including the Diaoyu-Senkaku. Representing the Chinese side in Cairo was Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek of the Republic of China. No word yet on whether Ambassador Liu's comments amount to official recognition of the wartime achievements of the Chinese Communist Party's erstwhile Voldemort, the Kuomintang.
Things haven't got better since that interview.
The Chinese and Japanese ambassadors to the US exchanged similarly caustic op-eds on 10 January and 17 January. Last Friday, Chinese media heavily promoted a story on the unveiling of Korea's third statue commemorating Comfort Women, who were forced into sex slavery by the Japanese military in World War II. The day before, Japan risked regional ire by calling for the removal of similar statue erected in a Californian Park.
On Sunday, Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party held its annual convention. In his speech, Abe devoted much of his time to praising the achievements of 'Abenomics.' He made no mention of LDP intent to amend Japan's pacifist constitution, despite Chinese media reporting that he had. A government panel is to report on a potential amendment in April.
Abe's ambitions may eventually be tempered by poll numbers. Japanese politics follows nationalistic swings, and there are indications the current upsurge may have reached a high-water mark. In December, the government's approval rating fell to a new low, as Abe forged ahead with tighter state secrecy laws. A hawkish national security agenda was a significant factor in Abe's stepping down as prime minister in 2007.
Also on Sunday Abe called for 'frank' talks with China and Korea to help solve historical and territorial disputes. China may have little incentive to respond; appealing to anti-Japanese nationalism works for the ruling Communist Party, and distracts the populace from issues at home. More likely, China will continue wooing regional players to its side by appealing to fears of Japanese militarism. Japan, for its part, is seeking to deepen strategic ties with India, despite reservations in Delhi about offending its increasingly important trade partner to the north.
Ian Bremmer, president of risk consultancy Eurasia Group, recently predicted the China-Japan spat to be the most significant geopolitical tension of 2014. If January is anything to go by, he might be right.