Sunanda K Datta-Ray: Wen Kan we talk?

Last Updated: Fri, Oct 08, 2010 22:50 hrs

Such things happen mainly in the wonderland of royal palaces of which the White House is, of course, the most royal, nay, imperial. They become doubly likely when a palace doubles up as the venue for that other fantasy — the international conference. And so, a working dinner at ASEM, the Asia-Europe meeting, was barely over in the Palais Royale here in Brussels the other evening when Japan’s prime minister, Naoto Kan, barely four months in office, ambling through the corridors with only his interpreter in attendance, bumped into ... guess who? China’s premier, Wen Jiabao, also strolling back with his interpreter.

My Japanese friends insist they met "naturally". But it just happens they have not been on speaking terms — or, rather, only on angry exchange terms — since early last month. It also happens that being key members of the international party circuit, they will attend the East Asia Summit in Hanoi on the last day of this month. It would not do to embarrass their host, Vietnam’s Nguyen Tan Dung, by turning their backs on each other.

Moreover, Kan himself will host Wen at APEC’s mid-November summit. The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), if you recall, won’t open its door even a crack to India. I once asked a Tokyo foreign ministry official for the reason and he replied that the Japanese don’t regard a country as truly Asian if the Rising Sun didn’t illumine it during World War Two. My protest that the Rising Sun did rise in the Andamans and Manipur was disregarded. After all, Japan’s Sun set in the district commissioner’s tennis court in Kohima.

But to return to that Asian duo, Wen and Kan. At one level, their problem is over names. What Kan knows as the Senkaki islands is Diaoyu to Wen. It gets murkier after that. I mean the Chinese just drove a road through Aksai Chin when no one was looking. Here, the complex of occupation, sovereignty, colonialism, post-war reparation and restoration and secessionism makes the Schleswig-Holstein dispute look like a nursery game. And that, as Palmerston put it, was understood by only three men — the dead Prince Consort, a mad Dane and he himself, but he had long ago forgotten all about it.

There was no chance of this quarrel being forgotten even if the Japanese coast guard hadn’t caught a Chinese fisherman (at least he looked like and claimed to be a fisherman, but who knows!) in waters he shouldn’t have been in. That was on September 7. The fisherman — let’s give him the benefit of the doubt — was released on September 24. But the Chinese are still crying blue murder. Not, in fact, since Britain threatened to go to war because Don Pacifico (a Portuguese Jew born in Gibraltar and, therefore, British) was allegedly mistreated by an Athenian mob, has a single man caused such a furore.

What furore, ask the Japanese placidly. The man was trespassing, he has been released and there the matter ends. There’s no dispute over Senkaki. They have always been Japanese. Not so, say the Chinese. They want the islands because there’s oil below. They also want the islands because Japan once merged them with Taiwan, then another Japanese colony, and, of course, they want Taiwan. China wants another apology too. One for wartime atrocities, one for the Yasukuni Shrine, now one for Senkaki/ Diaoyu.

Kan and Wen may have helped cool tempers. Events like ASEM have that effect. When the Singaporeans first proposed an ASEAN-Europe meeting, Pranab Mukherjee got a bit worked up and declared that "Asia without India was like Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark". It was put to Wong Kan Seng, then Singapore’s foreign minister, who shot back that the initiative was ASEAN-Europe, not Asia-Europe. It’s been smooth sailing since then. The ASEAN [Association of South East Asian Nations] process has been expanded and Asia’s definition enlarged. We were proudly told that ASEM represents 58 per cent of mankind, 52 per cent of the world’s GDP and 68 per cent of its trade. Other spokesmen gave slightly different figures but all the statistics make members like Myanmar, say, or Slovenia glow in the pride of belonging to a group that decisively influences the fortunes of humanity. No wonder Luxembourg’s representative boasted to a Chinese dignitary that, between them, they represented one-third of mankind.

I hoped to hear that Mohammed Hamid Ansari and Shah Mahmoud Quereshi also ran into each other somewhere in the carpeted and chandeliered labyrinth of the Palais Royale. But the screen says India’s briefing has just been cancelled.  

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