Diplomatic tensions between China and Japan showed no signs of abating this past week as the two countries traded barbs over Africa.
On Thursday, Lu Shaye, head of the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s African affairs department, defended China’s engagement in the continent. China is “sincere,” Mr. Lu said, “unlike some countries” that he said are driven by self-interest and politics.
His comments followed remarks by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, during a visit to Mozambique this month, that Japan will not just extract resources from Africa but “create jobs.” Tomohiko Taniguchi, Mr. Abe’s spokesman, told the BBC that countries like Japan “cannot provide African leaders with beautiful houses or beautiful ministerial buildings.” Instead, Japan’s policy is “to really aid the human capital of Africa.”
Mr. Abe was trying to distinguish Japan’s efforts from those of China, Europe and the United States, news agencies reported. However, at a time of tension between Japan and China, the Chinese Foreign Ministry responded angrily, calling Mr. Abe’s comments “unprofessional and ridiculous.”
Relations between the two countries have been strained because of a sovereignty dispute over several East China Sea islands and unresolved issues from Japan’s wartime past. Mr. Abe’s decision in December to visit the Yasukuni Shrine, where convicted war criminals are honored along with other Japanese war dead, drew angry condemnation from China and South Korea.
In an online interview with the state news agency Xinhua on Thursday, Mr. Lu said that African countries “have already seen” that Japan was eyeing African resources and markets, wanting to compete with China and to win votes at the United Nations.
He criticized Japan’s approach as empty words whereas Chinese assistance “can be seen and touched.” China has financed the construction of numerous major infrastructure projects in Africa, including government buildings, roads and railways – often with resource-backed loans.
“During Abe’s visit to Africa, the Japanese side said China only engages in infrastructure construction,” Mr. Lu said. “The problem is, without infrastructure, how can Africa develop? Why don’t you, Japan, help Africa with basic infrastructure?”
In the days after Mr. Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, the Chinese government waged a global diplomatic campaign denouncing Mr. Abe’s actions, which Beijing sees as disregarding Japan’s wartime past.
Shortly after Mr. Abe wrapped up his Africa tour, which included visits to Ivory Coast and Ethiopia and pledges of hundreds of millions of dollars in aid, the Chinese ambassador to Ethiopia, Xie Xiaoyan, held a news conference at which he accused the Japanese leader of being “the biggest troublemaker in Asia,” Xinhua reported.
Holding up several graphic photos that he said showed victims of Japanese atrocities during World War II, Mr. Xie said he wanted to inform Africans about Japan’s record in Asia, the article said.
Mr. Xie is one of more than a dozen Chinese ambassadors around the world who have expounded on Beijing’s views in local newspapers and television since Mr. Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine on Dec. 26.
Cui Tiankai, the Chinese ambassador to the United States and a former ambassador to Japan, wrote an op-ed piece for The Washington Post this month that called the shrine “ground zero for the unrepentant view of Japan’s wartime aggression.” Mr. Abe’s visit, he said, was a challenge to the world.
On Friday, The Washington Post carried an op-ed by the Japanese ambassador in the United States, Kenichiro Sasae, who called on China to “cease its dogmatic anti-Japanese propaganda campaign and work with us toward a future-oriented relationship.”
The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Hong Lei, said on Thursday that the Chinese diplomats’ actions in recent days were aimed at ensuring that countries around the world “clearly recognize the threat to world peace Mr. Abe’s visit to Yasukuni poses.”
Beijing’s recent diplomatic push in part reflects the government’s increasing appreciation of public outreach. In recent years, China has stepped up its public diplomacy – from trying to project a better image of Chinese development projects in Myanmar to setting up a Foreign Ministry-affiliated Public Diplomacy Association, led by retired senior diplomats.
Global Times, a nationalist-leaning state-run newspaper, published aneditorial last week that argued that the war of words was an important fight that China “must not lose.”
“There is no smoke in this ‘Chinese-Japanese public opinion war’ but it is a special 21st century battlefield,” the paper said.