It’s official. The denial. The records of the foreign minister’s regular press conference today (Feb. 8) is up now. Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida confirmed that “[yesterday] evening, there was an explanation from the Chinese defense ministry to our embassy in China. According to it, the explanation was that the substance of the case that the Japanese side announced publicly is not in accordance with the facts.”
One of the strengths of an authoritarian regime is that it’s usually much easier to make a story stick and stick it will…domestically. And that’s the one and only priority at this point. So the benefits to the Chinese political leadership are obvious. It doesn’t have to punish (or reward) anyone. More generally, it can kick the Senkaku issue and the broader Japan-China relationship down the road while it consolidates its hold on its domestic constituencies.
The Abe administration does not come out of all this without its own piece of silver lining. It can claim with some legitimacy that it has faced down the Chinese on this issue. True, it must do so in a low-key, dog-whistle sort of way, most likely through media surrogates so as not to goad the Chinese into further escalation on other fronts. Still, it’s a welcome respite from the frustration and sense of powerlessness engendered by the Chinese excursions into the territorial space of the Senkaku Islands. And kicking the can down the road can’t be bad for the Abe administration either, since it helps take one more set of difficult issues off the table in the lead up to the July House of Councillors election.
An unintended incident could always blow all this speculation away of course. But for the time being, I suspect that it’s going to be, move along, there’s nothing to see.