“Regrettable.” That’s the word both Japan’s finance minister and the head of the Bank of Japan used to describe their Chinese counterparts who canceled appearances at the annual meetings of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank this month.
Why would high Chinese officials skip the two gatherings? State media initially referred to scheduling conflicts, but Beijing then went mum.
Yet it’s clear to most observers why Chinese Finance Minister Xie Xuren and central bank chief Zhou Xiaochuan pulled out at the last minute and sent deputies instead. China wanted to register its displeasure at Japan, and the two meetings were held in Tokyo.
Beijing had recently stirred up a nasty territorial dispute over the the Senkakus, a string of Japanese-controlled islets in the East China Sea. Beijing calls the barren islands the Diaoyus, and its claim is far weaker than Japan’s as a matter of international law. Unfortunately for China, Beijing acknowledged the islands belonged to Japan up until the beginning of the 1970s. There are official Chinese maps that show the Senkakus as Japan’s.
Beijing’s prior acknowledgement of Japanese sovereignty does not seem to bother the current crop of Chinese leaders, who are now insistently pressing their claim. Last month, they exerted pressure on Japan by orchestrating nationwide protests, which resulted in firebombings and looting of Japanese businesses, and by employing extra-legal tactics to undermine Japanese business operations in China. At the same time, Communist Party and state media conducted an unrelenting campaign against Tokyo.
Yet Beijing is nothing if not thorough. It is not surprising, therefore, that Chinese leaders decided to teach Tokyo a lesson by trying to spoil the IMF and World Bank meetings, as if that would put pressure on Japan. Commenting on Beijing’s decision to send only junior officials to Tokyo, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said, “The arrangement of the delegation for the meeting was completely appropriate.”
Few outside China agreed with him, however. “The snub makes China seem petty and begrudging, especially since it is the IMF, an institution in which China is expanding its influence,” said Damien Ma of Eurasia Group, the geopolitical consulting firm.
The boycott of the IMF and World Bank meetings may well be a sign of things to come. As Yoshikiyo Shimamine of Dai-Ichi Life Research Institute put it, “It was an example of how China won’t always act within the Western-dominated framework and doesn’t see any contradiction between such absences and its responsibility as a major power.”
The Chinese have every right to reject that framework, but if they do, they should not be allowed to participate in its constituent institutions. If China wants a larger voice in the IMF and the World Bank—as Beijing insists it has a right to—then we should insist it accepts that framework and work constructively within it.
China throws tantrums because it feels it can get away with them. Now is the time to show the Chinese they cannot have it both ways. “They want to be seen as major players on the world stage, and yet they don’t turn up,” said the finance minister of a major economy to the Wall Street Journal. Now is the time to make Beijing choose whether it is in or out.