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    Greater China
     Sep 18, 2012


EAST CHINA SEA DISPUTE
Beijing more sensitive to war tremors
By Brendan O'Reilly

Long-standing historical and geopolitical tensions between Japan and China are coming to a head over a group of islands in the East China Sea. The struggle for sovereignty over the Diaoyu Islands (called Senkaku Islands in Japan) is heating up at a dangerous time for both countries. While Japan faces crucial elections, massive protests against Japan erupted in dozens of Chinese cities. In some places, anger was vented against Japanese products and brands. Protesters overturned Japanese-brand cars, set fire to buildings, and smashed Japanese-made electronics. The popular mood in China is for war.

Although the territorial dispute goes back at least several decades, recent moves by both nations have markedly increased

 

the friction between the second and third largest economies in the world. There exists a very real possibility for armed confrontation. The potential for armed conflict may be increasing due to heightened economic worries and political uncertainties in both countries.

Recent days have seen a dramatic escalation of the maritime dispute. The Japanese cabinet approved plans to purchase three of the five contested islands from their private Japanese owner. The Chinese government almost instantly condemned this move. Premier Wen Jiabao promised to "absolutely make no concession" on the issue of sovereignty over the islands. [1]

More tellingly, the Chinese government is now backing up tough words with military muscle. The Chinese Defense Ministry will "reserve the right to take necessary measures" [2] to secure Chinese sovereignty over the islands. China has sent six "ocean surveillance" ships to the disputed waters for the purpose of "law enforcement". The Japanese government summoned the Chinese ambassador in Tokyo and condemned the quasi-naval deployment as an "unprecedented" move in the several-decades old quarrel.

Yu Zhirong, a high-ranking official in the Chinese State Oceanic Administration, upped the ante in a recent interview, saying: "We will have to chase off Japan Coast Guard vessels from Chinese territorial waters. We are not fearful of risking a minor conflict." [3] While the leadership in both nations might not fear a small symbolic confrontation, the repercussions of such a move would be felt around the world. No one can guarantee that any conflict in the East China Sea would remain "minor". Japan's close security ties with the United States would likely drag America into any clash.

The United States has been closely monitoring the situation in the East China Sea. American ambassador to China Gary Locke recently stressed America neutrality in the current disputes. In reference to the standoffs between China and her neighbors, Locke stated: "We take absolutely no position on who is right, and we do believe that both sides need to try to resolve this."[4]

These comments have been interpreted in Chinese media as a significant shift of US policy. So far, the Chinese government has insisted resolving various territorial disputes through bilateral mechanisms, knowing full well China's geopolitical advantage in addressing disagreements on a one-to-one basis. On the other hand, Washington has been vocal in supporting multilateral mechanisms, where the Chinese advantage would be significantly diluted. Whether intentional or otherwise, Locke's call for "both sides" to work on settling the territorial disputes has been chalked up as a diplomatic win in China.

US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, speaking in Tokyo, has also weighed in on the developing crisis: "I am concerned that when these countries engage in provocations of one kind or another over these various islands, that it raises the possibility that a misjudgment on one side or the other could result in violence, and could result in conflict. And that conflict would then have the potential of expanding."[5]

The potential for an "expanding" conflict is very worrying indeed for the United States. American resources are already stretched thin. The United States is facing a growing crisis in the Middle East over an anti-Islam video, not to mention the ongoing war in Afghanistan and military operations in Somalia, Yemen, and Pakistan. Some hawkish elements within the Chinese leadership may want to use the current standoff to test America's security commitment to Japan and the broader American strategic pivot to Asia.

A wave of nationalism is sweeping the entire Chinese world as Beijing takes concrete steps to challenge Japanese control over the islands. After the Japanese government decided to purchase the islands, the Taiwan-based Republic of China (ROC) withdrew its envoy from Tokyo in protest. ROC Foreign Minister Timothy Yang harshly condemned the Japanese policy, saying: "We strongly demand that the Japanese government revokes this move. Japan's unilateral and illegal action cannot change the fact that the Republic of China owns the Diaoyu islands." [6]

Beyond the strongly worded diplomatic protests from both sides of the Taiwan Strait, there is a surge of popular anger directed at the Japanese throughout Greater China. Several weeks ago, pro-Chinese activists from Hong Kong landed on the disputed islands. Calls for a Chinese boycott of Japanese goods are gaining traction. More ominously, recent anti-Japanese protests in several Chinese cities have devolved into riots. Images of burning Japanese cars (and their well-clad, tearful owners) have spread across Chinese social media even faster than the riots themselves. The flag of the People's Republic of China is prominently displayed in shops throughout the country, along with anti-Japanese banners. The Japanese government issued a safety warning for Japanese citizens in China after several "serious" instances of attack or harassment. [7]

Exacerbating the crisis is the fact that Japan's newly appointed ambassador to China died in Tokyo on Sunday. [8] Shinichi Nishimiya had been assigned to the post only the week before. Authorities have ruled out the possibility of links between Nishimiya's untimely death and the increasingly violent anti-Japanese demonstrations, but his loss further complicates a strained relationship.

The crisis in the East China Sea will have major economic effects along with the geopolitical repercussions. The bilateral trade relationship between Japan and the People's Republic of China is valued at more than US$340 billion. As calls for a boycott of "enemy goods" increase on both sides, the effects of the ongoing confrontation are being felt in the pocketbooks of business in both nations. Why are both sides risking an escalation at this juncture?

Both Beijing and Tokyo are riding the tiger of strident nationalism. Japan is facing serious internal political divisions, a nuclear power controversy, and a lagging economy. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's decision to nationalize the islands came after Tokyo governor Shintara Ishiara called not only for the purchase the islands, but also to develop them. It seems likely that Prime Minister will leave the islands undeveloped, in an effort to tread a middle path between enraging the Chinese and angering Japanese nationalists. This strategy appears to have been a serious miscalculation.

For the past several decades, the Chinese government has largely avoided military confrontation. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has instead bolstered its legitimacy by providing economic growth. Foreign disputes were put on the backburner as the government focused on the singular goal of increasing material prosperity. Because the Communist Party did not have clear internal divisions, and because the autocratic nature of the Chinese system largely shielded the party from direct accountability to the people, the Chinese leadership has taken a decidedly long-term strategy for enhancing China's international power. A major crisis, such as the 1999 North Atlantic Treaty Organization bombing of the Chinese embassy in Serbia, did not lead to a prolonged or drastic Chinese response, despite intense popular anger.

This pattern may no longer hold true. Divisions within the Communist Party are surfacing in the wake of former Chongqing municipality party chief Bo Xilai's dramatic fall from grace. Furthermore, a recent prolonged absence of heir apparent Xi Jinping from the public eye fueled speculation of a violent confrontation within the ranks of the Party. In the event of a serious struggle for political power in China, a ruling faction may seek to shore up domestic support by initiating an armed conflict with China's historical nemesis.

Western governments that pressure China to democratize do so with supreme geopolitical shortsightedness. If the government in mainland China was currently a Western-style representative democracy, popular pressure for a war against Japan would be almost impossible to resist.

Adding to the political uncertainties are worrying signs of a slowdown in China's economy. Bad news has piled on in the last several months, with major economic indicators pointing to a major reduction in China's growth rate. Premier Wen Jiabao recently tried to reassure China (and the world) by addressing the economic woes: "I do not agree with the argument that China's high growth has come to an end after 30 years. There is still much we can do." [9] Mr Wen went on to announce a 7.5% growth target for this year. In most major economies, this would be a very impressive rate, but for China this figure would represent the slowest growth in 22 years.

By purchasing the islands at this critical juncture, Japanese Prime Minister Noda has forced the Chinese government to react by raising the diplomatic, economic, and military stakes of the conflict. For China sees Tokyo's "nationalization" of the disputed territory a unilateral move to change the status quo, and thus a provocation. China is sure to refrain from risky military adventurism only so long as the Chinese economy continues to rapidly grow and the Chinese leadership remains largely united. In the event of a major economic crisis in China, or a situation of political instability, all bets are off.

Notes:
1. Sino-Japanese clash, Deccan Herald, Sep 13, 2012.
2. China sends six ships to disputed islands, Al Jazeera, Sep 14, 2012.
3. China willing to risk 'conflict' as it claims waters around Senkakus, The Asashi Shimbun, Sep 15, 2012.
4. Locke urges bilateral talks to resolve issues, China Daily, Sep 15, 2012.
5. US defense chief Panetta warns on Asia territory rows, BBC News, Sep 16, 2012.
6. Taiwan recalls envoy over island dispute, Straits Times, Sep 11, 2012.
7. Japan warns citizens in China after assaults, Japan Today, Sep 14, 2012.
8. Japan's new envoy to China dead: officials, Times of India, Sep 16, 2012.
9. China's economy to continue 'fast and stable' growth, says Premier Wen Jiabao, Telegraph, Sep 11, 2012.


Brendan P O'Reilly is a China-based writer and educator from Seattle. He is author of The Transcendent Harmony.

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)





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