Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Rocky relations between China and Japan

Chinese anger with Japan over a fishing-boat incident is both unexpectedly persistent and uncalibrated

Amid a flurry of international summitry in Asia, arguments between China and Japan are proving an embarrassment. At a meeting of regional leaders in Hanoi on October 30th, the two countries’ prime ministers managed a mere ten minutes of chat. America even offered to help mediate between them—in vain. An angry China is proving unusually hard to placate.

The diplomatic rupture between Asia’s two largest economies began when China responded furiously to Japan’s detention of a Chinese fishing-boat crew on September 7th. It has continued far longer than almost anyone expected. The swift release of the crew, and on September 24th of their captain, did little to restore calm.
At a gathering on October 4th of European and Asian leaders in Brussels, China’s prime minister, Wen Jiabao, spoke in a corridor with his counterpart, Naoto Kan, for 25 minutes. But as with the encounter in Hanoi, no more than the barest of courtesies appear to have been expressed. A more formal meeting did look set for Hanoi, but the Chinese abruptly cancelled it, accusing Japan of acting in “collusion” with other countries (for which, read the United States) to inflame the dispute.

Now China’s persistent anger threatens to overshadow a G20 summit in Seoul on November 11th-12th, and a meeting soon after of Asia-Pacific leaders in Yokohama, Japan. President Barack Obama and his Chinese counterpart, Hu Jintao, are due to attend both. Mr Kan hopes to meet Mr Hu in the margins, with no guarantee that Mr Hu will agree, despite a promise by Mr Wen in Brussels that the two leaders could meet “at an appropriate time”.

In Hanoi, American officials say, the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, made it clear to both Chinese and Japanese diplomats that she wanted the temperature lowered. Yet her offer of mediation has been tartly rebuffed by China.

More is involved than mere routine outrage over the arrest of the fishermen off Japanese-controlled islands (the Senkaku islands, or Diaoyu in Chinese) which China claims as its territory. The trawler captain’s release could have prompted China to retire, content that Mr Kan’s government had been made to look weak despite apparently reckless behaviour on the part of the fishing boat. The Japanese say the skipper was steaming drunk. On November 1st 30-odd Japanese politicians were shown a video they say left no doubt of a deliberate ramming of a Japanese coastguard vessel.

But instead of quietly celebrating Japan’s capitulation, China demanded an apology and compensation, which Japan refused. Public opinion in China might be making it difficult for Chinese leaders to climb down. The dispute has triggered the biggest anti-Japanese protests in five years, with thousands taking to the streets in several inland cities.

What is puzzling, however, is that these only erupted on any scale a full three weeks after the captain’s release. Perhaps officials tacitly approved of the demonstrations at first. But by the end of October students were being ordered to remain on university campuses over the weekend as some cities tried to prevent further unrest. Similar protests in 2005 also gave the impression of government attempting to put a lid on demonstrations which they had had a role in encouraging.

Michael Yahuda, of the London School of Economics, says China’s hard line probably has a lot to do with jockeying for power among Chinese leaders, as sweeping changes to the party and government hierarchy are contemplated for 2012-13. China’s foreign ministry may have argued that the rhetoric should be dialled down. But it has never had real clout. The foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, is not even in the Politburo, let alone on the standing committee, pinnacle of Communist Party power. The ministry has found itself further marginalised, as conviction grows within the party that the West is in terminal decline and that it is time for China to assert itself as a global power. Military types privately criticise the foreign ministry for wetness in dealing with Japan and the West.

Recent American behaviour has fuelled the hardliners’ belief that the time has come for China to flex some muscle. America has taken to describing freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, most of which China claims as its own, as a “national interest”. Mrs Clinton repeated this during the East Asia Summit in Hanoi where Mr Kan and Mr Wen briefly met. When she made similar remarks in July the Chinese response was sufficiently furious to unnerve China’s South-East Asian neighbours.

She earned further rebuke from China (though much praise in Japan) on October 27th, when she emphatically stated that the Senkaku are covered by America’s security alliance with Japan.

Mr Obama’s tour of Asia from November 5th-14th is likely to reinforce impressions in Beijing that America is stepping up efforts to keep China in check. It takes him to four democracies: India, Indonesia, South Korea and Japan. Chinese hawks are particularly worried that America might be trying to cosy up to India in order to contain Chinese power in the region. Elite Reference, a Beijing newspaper, quoted unnamed commentators as saying Mr Obama was deliberately leaving China out of his trip.

For all that, some leaders worry about China being seen as threatening. For instance, Mr Yang, China’s foreign minister, apparently assured Mrs Clinton in Hanoi that China would be a “responsible supplier” of rare earths. At the height of the fishing-boat dispute, China stopped exports to Japan of these minerals, which are crucial for the manufacture of many high-technology products. Still, an official in Tokyo says that Japan has not received a single shipment since the captain’s release. He also says that the Chinese have even hinted to Japanese manufacturers that if they want rare earths, they should move their factories to China. To the Japanese, that sounds like a menacing invitation to hand over their most valuable technologies—and is anyway a move unlikely to still Chinese anger. The Economist

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