Following the unprecedented inclusion of the disputed Senkaku Islands in the official Chinese baselines map, Beijing sent a flotilla of six maritime vessels in the disputed waters to challenge Japan’s possession of the disputed territory last Friday. The flotilla left on the same day, but its deployment was reminiscent of the stand-off between China and the Philippines earlier this year. Osamu Fujimura, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, called it an “invasion.”
Meanwhile, massive and violent anti-Japan protests continue to sweep major Chinese cities, threatening Japanese nationals and business establishments. The protests, endorsed by the semi-official Chinese media, have an unmistakable imprimatur from among the higher-ups in Beijing. The Chinese government itself has been scrapping official contacts with Japan, and linking such cancellations to the simmering territorial dispute. All these, according to China, are consequences of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s “reckless” decision to “nationalize” the Senkaku Islands. In short, Japan provoked China.
This is far from the truth, of course. The Chinese know that Prime Minister Noda’s “nationalization” of the islands was in fact done in good faith. The Japanese government was merely preventing the ultra-nationalist (and anti-China) Governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, from purchasing the islands from their private Japanese owners. Governor Ishihara wanted to build structures on the island that would have ruffled more Chinese feathers; Prime Minister Noda was trying to prevent a potential crisis, and he thought Beijing understood. In fact, some academics are pointing out that the Chinese had actually been sending signals that the Noda government’s efforts to outbid Governor Ishihara are acceptable to Beijing. But apparently, something has changed.
Just like the anti-Philippine jingoism in Beijing earlier this year, the Chinese government’s encouragement of anti-Japan sentiments is driven by domestic considerations. Gu Kailai, the wife of disgraced Chongquing kingpin Bo Xilai, has just been convicted of murdering a British national. Also, in the midst of the once-in-a-decade power transition in Beijing, President Hu Jintao’s heir apparent, Vice President Xi Jinping, has gone missing. These developments have focused public attention on the Communist Party (CCP) elite, which has suddenly found itself at risk of being the subject of public scrutiny. The party elite needed a distraction.
Once again, Beijing is playing a dangerous game. Chinese resentment of Japan is deep and bitter, thanks in part to Japan’s failure to fully atone for its long history of atrocities against the Chinese people. Many Chinese believe that old scores with Japan have yet to be settled, and, with their new-found confidence driven by their country’s rise, they believe that the time is ripe to settle these scores, and to get even with their Japanese neighbors. This is exactly the point of the Global Times’ recent editorial.
Anti-Japanese sentiments in China are like a mad genie. The CCP has unleashed the genie; now, it would have extreme difficulty bringing the genie back into the bottle. The smarter people in Beijing know that, when the dust of the leadership transition settles, China would have no choice but to manage its dispute with Japan and stabilize the bilateral relationship. Hence, the need to prevent the genie from going out of its master’s control.
Unfortunately, the smarter people in Beijing have yet to consolidate their control over policy-making. The jingoistic actors, among both the party and the increasingly powerful and independent People’s Liberation Army (PLA), are wrestling for influence, too. This explains the mixed signals China has been sending.
Last Friday’s development, for instance, was an unmistakable manifestation of this power struggle: The hawks, emboldened by China’s victory in its stand-off with the Philippines earlier this year, sent six maritime vessels to the Japanese-controlled waters off Senkaku; but cooler heads prevailed in having the flotilla recalled. They knew the risks of engaging Japan in a maritime stand-off: Unlike the Philippine Navy, which is arguably the weakest navy in the region, the Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Forces is the biggest Asian navy. But just the same, the Chinese Bureau of Fisheries Administration, one of the “nine dragons” identified by the International Crisis Group as having the most to gain by stirring up China’s territorial disputes, has threatened to send a couple of ships back this Sunday.
This uncertainty will limit the wiggle room for both Beijing and Tokyo to manage the situation, which means that we have yet to see the worst of this crisis. While this blog is ruling out any military confrontation, economic skirmishes between the world’s second and third largest economies are likely. China certainly has the ability to hurt Japan economically, and there already are calls in Tokyo for the government to prepare for the worst.
Understandably, this whole imbroglio has left the Noda government with no choice but to drop all efforts at conciliation. A weak response to any Chinese attempt to challenge Japan’s control of the Senkaku Islands would doom Prime Minister Noda’s administration (although it’s already doomed in the first place, but that for another blog entry). Meanwhile, the five candidates for the presidency of the opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which looks set to regain power when elections are called this year, are trying to outdo each other in calling for a more hawkish position vis a vis Beijing. One of them, Nobuteru Ishihara, is the son of the anti-China Governor of Tokyo and a long-time friend of President Aquino of the Philippines, who also has no love lost for the Chinese. He would probably become Japan’s next Prime Minister.