The visit of Xi Jinping, China’s vice president and heir apparent to People’s Republic of China (PRC) President Hu Jintao, has stirred up a mini-political firestorm in Japan over the decision to set aside imperial protocol in order to facilitate Xi’s meeting with Emperor Akihito. The Chinese apparently asked that a rule requiring that a request to meet the emperor be made a month in advance of the audience be waived so that the meeting could occur. The meeting arguably contributed to a positive mood in Sino-Japanese relations, but it has also left behind a residue of political controversy.
The controversy has several dimensions. One is the Japanese domestic political aspect of whether Ichiro Ozawa, the secretary general of the Democratic Party of Japan, may have utilized his influence improperly to facilitate a positive review of the Chinese request. Ozawa’s involvement is politically controversial because he returned from his own visit to China a week earlier as head of a 600-person delegation including over 140 parliamentarians. China accorded extraordinary deference to Ozawa and China’s highest leaders met with him during his visit to Beijing. Ozawa’s reception seemed to eclipse that of Prime Minister Hatoyama two months earlier, raising the question of whether Ozawa’s informal political influence is overshadowing the official procedures of the Government of Japan. A secondary aspect of the controversy is whether the short-circuiting of the rules for requesting an audience with the emperor crosses the line between state ceremony and politics by drawing him into a political and diplomatic role.
Second and more complicated is whether countries should be bending protocol rules in order to accommodate Xi, who remains a vice president, despite clear indications that he may possibly succeed Hu Jintao as president of the PRC. There are reports that the government of South Korea is also treating Xi’s visit in the same manner reserved for preparations to welcome a head of state.
There is no doubt that it would be foolish to needlessly offend China’s heir apparent, and there are persuasive arguments for setting aside protocol in recognition of Xi’s future role; on the other hand, it would be presumptuous for Chinese diplomatic officials to request special treatment on behalf of their future leader. Acceptance of such requests could feed an attitude that China’s neighbors should rightfully treat China’s current and future leaders with both deference and exceptionalism. If China deems that it can take such treatment for granted, such precedents may ultimately be contrary to Japan’s and South Korea’s own national interests.