Blunt words and keen swords
Nov 10th 2012 | from the print edition
DESPITE a third round of talks this week, China and Japan seem no closer to ending their stand-off over the tiny, uninhabited islands known to China as the Diaoyus and to Japan as the Senkakus. Indeed, the row seems to be intensifying. Chinese spokesmen are lining up to recall Japan’s shameful imperial past and to warn it to back off. Vessels from the two countries confront each other almost daily in waters near the islands. In the circumstances, it hardly helped that this week Japan and America started “Operation Keen Sword”, a regular naval drill involving 34,000 Japanese and 10,000 Americans in waters near the disputed islands. At least the exercise was changed so that it no longer includes a rehearsal for recapturing an invaded island.
The tension is in no country’s interests, least of all China’s. With the political uncertainty at home that a leadership transition brings, this is hardly the time to pick a fight with a neighbour. And although Japan suffers from Chinese consumer boycotts and informal commercial sanctions, China loses too, as Japanese investors and tourists take fright. The perception of Chinese bellicosity damages its interests elsewhere. South-East Asian countries whose claims in the South China Sea clash with China’s look at its behaviour farther north and raise military spending and strengthen their ties with America. And there is a small but real risk that the stand-off could result in a clash; that a clash could provoke a reprisal; and that tit-for-tat reprisals could become war.
This could even, conceivably, embroil America. The security treaty signed in 1960 between Japan and the United States commits America to come to Japan’s help in the event of an attack. America has confirmed that, although it takes no position as to who owns the islands, Japan administers them and so they are covered by the treaty. Four former senior American officials who visited China and Japan late last month reminded China of this. In a confidential assessment they gave to Hillary Clinton, America’s secretary of state, the four reportedly worried that, though neither Japan nor China wanted it, “mistake or miscalculation” over the islands could yet escalate into military confrontation.
However, rather than trying to cool the dispute, China is heating it up, dangerously. It refuses even to consider Japan’s justification for the action that provoked the stand-off—its purchase in September of three of the islands from their private owner. The prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, wanted to thwart their purchase by Shintaro Ishihara, then governor of Tokyo, a right-winger wanting to assert Japanese sovereignty more aggressively. China saw the move as a bid to solidify Japan’s claim and change the status quo. Most Chinese analysts suspect Mr Noda of conniving with Mr Ishihara, who has since launched his own party.
In response to the “nationalisation” of the disputed islands, China lodged its claim to “territorial baselines” around them and is sending (civilian) government patrol vessels into their waters ever more frequently. The Chinese foreign ministry has noted “fundamental changes” in the islands’ situation, and has claimed to have “expelled” Japanese ships from their waters. So China is now challenging not just Japan’s claim to sovereignty over the islands; it is questioning even its administrative control.
Meanwhile, senior Chinese soldiers and diplomats are linking the row to Japan’s militarist past. Ren Haiquan, a general at China’s Academy of Military Science, on October 29th reminded a regional-security conference in Australia of Japan’s history as a fascist country that had once bombed Darwin. He also hinted at China’s fears that America is stoking tension to undermine China, and to encourage Japan to share more of the burden of containing it. Chinese officials and scholars mutter darkly about a rightward lurch in Japanese politics. Writing in the Financial Times (which is a part-owner of The Economist), Liu Xiaoming, China’s ambassador to Britain, accused Japan of “attempting to negate the outcome of the war against military fascism”.
The memory of Japanese occupation and wartime atrocities is still fresh in China. But to Western ears, the references to fascism sound alarmingly ill-informed. Nearly 70 years have passed since Japan lost the war. It has become a stable if often dysfunctional democracy. It has a small if strident nationalist right wing, but the idea that its policy on the Senkakus somehow marks a resurgence of its imperialist past seems preposterous.
To explain China’s hard line, analysts in Tokyo look to factors outside the dispute. At a time of Japanese decline and American distraction, they suggest, China wants to test the strength of the two countries’ alliance. Above all they point to China’s change of leadership. They argue either that the Politburo is distracted, allowing hardliners in the army and elsewhere to confuse policy, or that, at a time like this, no would-be leader can afford to be seen as other than fierce in the defence of national sovereignty.
A game of make-believe
In fact, however, Chinese statements and actions throughout the stand-off have shown little sign of confusion or division. They have been consistent and apparently well co-ordinated. Unpalatable though it is in Tokyo, perhaps Chinese spokesmen mean what they say. Perhaps they really do think the right wing in Japan is behind the change in the islands’ status, and needs to be confronted. For them, the transition in China is also relevant—but only because China’s enemies see it as a chance to take advantage. China must stand firm.
One well-informed Chinese analyst still thinks conflict can be avoided. He believes a silent, unacknowledged “compromise” is, in effect, already in place. China has had to accept the “nationalisation” of the three islands. Japan has had to accept that China will frequently visit them. If so, that is much better than a war. But it involves each country pretending that it controls the islands without enforcing the pretence. It is hard to imagine an arrangement more vulnerable to mistake and miscalculation.
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