Wednesday, 19 September 2012

China and Japan: Old Rivals, New Tensions

In the wake of an unauthorised landing by Chinese activists from Hong Kong on one of the disputed Senkaku (known as Diaoyu in Chinese) Islands, ambitions for the future have risen to the surface in extremist nationalist retaliatory movements in China and Japan. Given the present context of strategic affairs in East Asia, what is the role of domestic nationalism in the foreign policies of both countries?


Relations between China and Japan have been strained since 2010, when a Chinese fishing trawler collided with two Japanese Coast Guard ships off the Senkaku Islands and its captain was detained by Japanese authorities for two weeks. However, despite the de-escalation of regional tensions following the release of the ship’s captain, public mistrust and nationalistic sentiments on either side continued to fester, creating an explosive ambience in the region. The spark to this tinder was provided by Shintaro Ishihara, Tokyo’s governor, who announced the creation of a public fund in April to buy several of these islands from their private owners.

Following this, five members of a group of Hong Kong activists swam ashore on one of the islands in the Senkaku chain, and planted a Chinese flag in the ground in August 2012. The activists have since been arrested by Japanese authorities. The situation was further exacerbated on August 18, when a flotilla of 21 Japanese boats disgorged 10 people near the same island, who swam ashore and planted a Japanese flag in the soil. These tit-for-tat actions were accompanied by statements of nationalist bravado which served to inflame nationalist sentiments in both countries.


In reaction to the events of August 2012, massive public protests took place in China subsequent to Japan’s move to counter China’s territorial claim over the disputed island chain. Thousands of protestors took to the streets, smashing the windows of Japanese-owned businesses and attacking cars with Japanese brand names. While the protests were the largest in Shenzhen, anti-Japanese protests reverberated across China, from Qingdao to Shenyang, especially outside the Japanese consulates in Guangzhou. Protestors attacked the Japanese ambassador’s car in Beijing, ripping the national flag from the car, while leaving him unharmed.

Officially, statements of thinly veiled hostility have been released by both Japan and China. While most of the activists on board the Japanese flotilla were members of local conservative political parties, their statements were clear about Japanese intentions to guard the country’s territorial sovereignty, with one of them going so far as to state, “We need to solidly reaffirm our territory.” (Bradsher, Fackler and Jacobs: Anti-Japan Protests Erupt Over Disputed Islands in China, New York Times, 19 August 2012). China’s foreign ministry called in Tokyo’s ambassador to Beijing to lodge a formal protest against the event. This was backed by the state news agency Xinhua, which released a statement, to the effect that Sunday’s landing had “poisoned” the atmosphere of Sino-Japanese relations, and was a setback to efforts to bolster political and economic ties between the two countries.


Since then, Japan has purchased three of the five disputed islands for US$ 26 million from a Japanese family that has claimed ownership to them for decades. China dubbed the move a direct violation of Chinese sovereignty, and moved six of its patrol boats into the waters around the islets, stating a need to defend its maritime rights and interests (Austin Ramzy: Tensions with Japan increase as China Sends Patrol Boats to Disputed Islands).

The contemporary fracas over the Senkaku Islands carries the added weight of Imperial Japan’s wartime occupation of China. The islands fell under Japanese control in 1895, and were administered by the United States as part of the military base at Okinawa during World War II, only being returned to Japan by the 1970s.

Since then, the question of ownership remains a touchy issue. As with most disputes over islands in the region of the Western Pacific, the potential of undersea oil and gas reserves raises the stakes for most claimants in the dispute. The basic question of territorial ownership, however, is the foundation for the more extreme strains of nationalism that exist within both countries. It is also what is guiding the moves of each country on the international stage. For both Japan and China, these strains have flared up at a sensitive time in domestic politics. In Japan, for instance, the ruling party has weakened public support in a time when the country has been ravaged by economic collapse and natural disaster. Raising its voice stridently on issues of territorial sovereignty and patriotic nationalism appears to be the only trump card left in its hands as it hopes to avoid being forced to call for early elections this year.

In China, too, the run-up to the 18th Party Congress, which will see the swearing in of incumbent President Xi Jinping, precludes the showing of a neutral face on an issue which has festered over the centuries. Confrontation with Japan certainly is not an option as it will not help the harmonious image the Party wants to portray during the leadership transition, but there is also no incentive to compromise on an issue of sovereignty either, for fear of sparking simmering nationalist resentment at the Party’s weakness. At the same time, the standoff with Japan has helped to shift the spotlight away from particularly irksome issues about China’s political leaders themselves. For both countries, then, stoking nationalism has been the driving force behind foreign policy moves as seen in the course of August and September 2012.

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