Japan and China Pick an Un-Davos-like Fight at Davos

Japan and China Pick an Un-Davos-like Fight at Davos

DAVOS, Switzerland — Sparks are flying between Chinese and Japanese officials in this snowy Swiss town — and not the kind that this business matchmaking soiree is meant to kindle.

The two Asian powers have set aside the conference’s normal air of polite, sometimes stultifying, discourse and instead spent days lobbing rhetorical grenades at each other over a pair of disputed islands.

The decidedly un-Davos-like behavior began Wednesday, when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe used an address here to call for the restraint of "military expansion in Asia."

"If peace and stability were shaken in Asia, the knock-on effect for the entire world would be enormous," he said.

China replied in kind Friday, with Foreign Minister Wang Yi telling an audience that the island dispute was "created by the Japanese side."

When the dispute came up again at a separate panel event, Chinese billionaire Wang Jianlin blasted another speaker, Joseph Nye, a former dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School, for changing the subject away from economics. "You shouldn’t deviate into politics," Wang said, prompting an apology from Nye.

The dispute revolves around the seemingly unimportant fate of a pair of rocky islands — Diaoyu to the Chinese and Senkaku to the Japanese — claimed by both countries. The tensions escalated when China extended its air defense zone last fall, angering Japan and other neighbors. Japan then hit a perennial Chinese sore spot by visiting a shrine that honors Japan’s war dead, including World War II war criminals. With China and its anxious neighbors investing tens of billions of dollars in their navies and armies, Navy Adm. Samuel J. Locklear called the Asia-Pacific region "the most militarized region in the world" on Thursday. 

Some China-watchers think that the potential for tense moments like Wang’s outburst on his panel with Nye keeps Beijing from fully embracing this pilgrimage for the global elite. China sent only 50 people to the conference, compared to 700 from the United States. The comparatively small turnout of the world’s most populous country is a perennial topic of discussion here at Davos.

But at lease one Chinese company was expanding its Davos agenda this year. Telecom company Huawei, which has been accused in the United States of spying for the Chinese government, threw a lavish party Thursday night, for the first time joining the likes of Google and Yahoo on the Davos party circuit.

Descending the stairs into the basement of a hotel along Davos’s main street, guests were greeted with loud American disco music, red lights, and a banner that proclaimed Huawei was "connecting possibilities" and "reshaping the world." The spread was elaborate, including an ice sculpture, strawberries painted with chocolate tuxedos, and roving magicians. Unfortunately for the party newbies, few people made the trip.