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    Greater China
     Oct 6, 2010


Russia along for a Chinese ride
By Peter J Brown

In late September, the leaders of Russia and China were meeting in Beijing. Meanwhile, China's confrontation with Japan over the seizure of a fishing boat was playing out.

There is no smoking gun that ties the two events together, and yet there is a strong common thread that runs through each event, and leaves a distinct impression that the two events are not unrelated.

Thanks to a mutual declaration designed to set the historical record straight - at least in their eyes - Russia's ownership of islands immediately north of the main Japanese island of Honshu was firmly reinforced just as the Chinese people were fixated on the Diaoyu Islands - the Senkaku Islands as they Japanese call them - which are located on the opposite end of Japan.

Despite years of discussion, Russia and Japan are no closer to

 

resolving their own territorial dispute involving southern Sakhalin, and the Kuril Islands. The joint statement signed by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Chinese President Hu Jintao in Beijing strongly suggested that no such resolution was in sight.

"During the war [World War II], people in China and Russia sustained major aggressions from the fascists and militarists, and they endured the cruelest ordeals and suffered the heaviest casualties," the statement says. "The fascists and militarists schemed to conquer and enslave us two nations, other countries and the whole continent [Eurasia]. [People in] China and Russia will never forget the feat of those who checked the two forces [fascists and militarists]," said the statement, according to the People's Daily.

More than anything else, it is the tone and timing of this joint statement that calls into question the notion that the fishing boat incident roughly two weeks earlier had no bearing whatsoever on the meeting in Beijing.

"The people of the two countries will remember and pay homage to all those, from the Allies or not, who fought shoulder to shoulder with us to safeguard lives and freedom," the statement added.

"The glorious history, imprinted with the friendship the people of the two countries forged in the war and their mutual help, has laid a sound foundation for today's strategic partnership of coordination between China and Russia," said the statement. [1]

Read the last sentence again very carefully.

This proclamation comes after recent oil, natural gas and nuclear deals signed by China and Russia, along with a shared sense of apprehension about the US ballistic missile defense and conventional "Prompt Global Strike" capabilities - issues that arose during the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) negotiations between Russia and the US. There is also the proposed Sino-Russian treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force against Outer Space Objects.

But this new proclamation was designed to do far more than simply strengthen the spirit and resolve of the Chinese people in their showdown with Japan. Some might argue that no such strengthening is required given the lingering animosity between the countries. Sergei Luzyanin, deputy director of the Institute for the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, challenged the notion that China should expect to reap benefits from Russia's position, let alone Russia's involvement here.

"The Senkaku problem shouldn't be linked to the results of World War II," he said. [2]

In the end, the postponement due to bad weather of Medvedev's planned visit in late September to the Kunashiri and Etorofu Islands - known as part of the Northern Territories by the Japanese and as part of the Southern Kurils by the Russians - immediately following his visit to Beijing was welcome news in Tokyo. Russia seized the islands in the closing days of World War II. [3]

Russia was still very displeased after several Japanese politicians tried to convince Medvedev to cancel his trip there altogether.

"The Russian president independently selects routes of his domestic trips. Any recommendations from abroad are inappropriate and unacceptable," said Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko in Moscow. "We consider it necessary to recall that these islands are a territory of the Russian Federation in accordance with international legal reality that emerged following the Second World War and enshrined in the UN charter."

Still, despite China's certainty about where things stand as far as Russia is concerned, Russia's eagerness to play in China's shadow, and to endorse China's foreign policy without reservation is not assured. After all, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov deserved credit for attempting, albeit in vain, to prod China and Japan into initiating direct talks while he was in Beijing. [4]

Prior to Captain Zhan Qixiong's decision to ignore Japanese requests to stop and to instead bounce his fishing boat, the Minjinyu 5179, off a pair of Japanese maritime patrol vessels, China was outmaneuvering the US and Japan, and watching two old allies drift away from each other. One moment, no Japanese cabinet members or other senior members of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan dared set foot in Yasukuni Shrine. And the next moment, no US aircraft carrier appeared in the Yellow Sea during routine joint exercises involving US and South Korean military forces. [5]

All through the summer of 2010, China was given reason to celebrate a string of successes. Among other things, its campaign to present itself as a "peaceful rising power" was shifting into high gear. All of this was happening as China conducted a series of naval incursions in and around the first island chain, a geographic barrier which greatly inhibits China's offensive and defense operational flexibility.

Then came the fishing boat seizure in September. Among other things, China may have sacrificed or at least diminished the fruits of its peaceful outreach of late in order to allow China to gauge domestic support for a much more assertive stance over the Diaoyu Islands. Certainly, from an image projection standpoint, this was a risky move by Beijing at a time when incidents at sea in both the East China Sea and the South China Sea have escalated.

The arrest of Captain Zhan in early September by Japan should have been quickly assigned to the errant fishing boat file by China, and dealt with accordingly by the two countries in a relatively subdued fashion. Instead, China reacted as if Japan had suddenly sunk a Chinese submarine in international waters not far from Taiwan. [5]

China's emotional reaction was probably intentional. By assigning great importance to this incident, China demonstrated that it is willing to take unexpectedly bold risks that it might not do under ordinary circumstances. Again, this was done primarily for domestic consumption.

That Russia would allow itself to become a supporter of China - even establishing a new holiday in September directly tied to the end of World War II - at the expense of the Japanese no doubt surprised and delighted Beijing.

China and the rest of Asia could see immediately that the Chinese public perceives the Japanese control of the Diaoyu Islands as an illegitimate claim - this is not news - and the fishing boat seizure was an unlawful extension of that claim. The dispatch of Chinese maritime patrol vessels that are edging closer and closer to these islands each day magnified the not so subtle collective nod of approval given by the Chinese people to their government.

Given the leadership transition in Beijing already underway, and the desire of the Chinese military and hardliners in general to be more influential and certainly more assertive in dealing with China's neighbors, Russia's stamp of approval is indeed troubling. For China, this was a time to bask in the sunshine, especially as the political fallout bubbled up in Japan, entrapping Prime Minister Naoto Kan in the messy situation surrounding Zhan's release, and injecting plenty of turmoil into the ranks of the Democratic Party of Japan.

In addition, Japan has been slow to release video of the incident to the public for reasons unknown.

India, for one, has to be discomforted by Russia's closeness to China during this entire episode. However, for India, this is an opportunity at the same time to underscore its own fragile position with respect to its boundary disputes with China.

India has wanted the world to pay far more attention to China's "string of pearls" port development strategy in the Indian Ocean region anyway, and in September, China provided India with a new and important way to buttress its defensive capabilities on a much vaster scale. This is not to say that a new regional defensive plan is in place, but rather that the conditions for such a plan have improved immensely as far as Japan and India are concerned.

Consider the matter of the Japanese spy satellite that failed earlier this summer, for example. This was noteworthy only to a select audience in the space community, or so it seemed. Indeed, the Chinese must have taken a good deal of comfort in the rapid reduction in the size of Japan's fleet of surveillance satellites.

Although US satellite surveillance of China is intense and growing, India can now use Japan's space surveillance gap to India's advantage. And why not garner support for the creation of a much more tightly coordinated and shared surveillance network aimed at China, if one does not already exist involving India and Japan?

India's decision last month to relocate nuclear-armed Su-30MKI fighters to a base just a short hop from the Sino-Indian border demonstrates that India and Japan are both under increasing pressure as China's military buildup and movements along its borders increase in tempo and visibility. [6]

In other words, from the northwestern frontier of India to the southeastern maritime boundary of Japan, China's behavior and posture is the same. When Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visits Japan later this month - just prior to US President Barack Obama's trip to India - this will likely be a topic of discussion, but out of necessity, one that is addressed quietly.

Has the agenda for these high-level talks in Tokyo been altered, and are what were little more than a previously scheduled round of talks now taking on added urgency and scope?

India and Russia, which enjoy a cozy and long-standing military assistance relationship, must now revisit the relationship. This well-orchestrated meeting in Beijing will remind India that Russia has its own set of priorities, its own cultural imperatives and wants to keep all of its options open.

The US does not emerge as a big winner here despite the shared opinions of many commentators to this effect. The US is not prepared to provide the essential glue for a consolidated military alliance between Japan and India. Any US attempts to rush this process will yield an incoherent US foreign policy in South Asia in particular which could trigger an embarrassing and enormous calamity.

Besides driving Pakistan further into the arms of the Chinese - a process that is already vexing to US policymakers in general - it would jeopardize the entire US military campaign in Afghanistan. A looming backlash in Islamabad is what prevents the US from being too overt or too vocal in support of firmer military ties between Japan and India. Watch for this to become manifest when Obama performs a delicate balancing act as he sits down with Singh later this year.

Although the US may be inching closer to its old partner Japan thanks to the fishing boat incident, the US base relocation in Okinawa is still unresolved and represents a political minefield for both countries.

In addition, China is keen to foment resurgent Japanese nationalism that will hinder the US in its dealings with South Korea and Taiwan as well. Both have a stake in the outcome of the Senkakau Islands dispute, too. And it is not one which favors Japan - something the US must keep in mind.

Given all these variables, the US must be selective in its maneuvers. These words written by Professor Zhao Hongwei at Hosei University in Japan recently on the editorial page of China's Global Times deserve attention.

"China's temper has been frayed by the recent clash over fishing near the Diaoyu Islands. But the Japanese government and public still believe that Japan surrendered only due to a lack of national strength when facing the overbearing attitude of China. In the public's view, Japan only acted in accordance with the law, making it like a scholar overwhelmed by a soldier," said Zhao.

He urged China to be "cautious of the possibility of winning the diplomatic war while losing the PR [public relations] battle". Zhao also pointed his finger at those he considered to be the real culprits in this instance.

"Frankly speaking, this crisis was sensationalized by Japanese politicians for domestic politics ends. In order to get rid of the vicious circle of such Sino-Japanese relations, China must criticize such speculation as soon as possible in the future. If the politicians do not admit the fault, China should freeze diplomatic contacts with them, which would affect their official positions," said Zhao.

His message to the Chinese people was abundantly clear.

"We need to target Japanese politicians' hottest speculations and anti-Chinese claims focused on the Diaoyu Islands. Bilateral monitoring of the area is needed to block the possibility of future incidents that might be manipulated by politicians," said Zhao. "Only by taking the offensive can we see new prospects of the long-term normal development of Sino-Japanese relations." [7]

The bottom line is that Tokyo cannot be trusted. This distrust helps China to sustain its campaign to frame the seizure of the Diaoyu Islands as a justifiable and legitimate undertaking. In turn, this builds popular support for a more effective strategy and more military might which will be applied quickly and effectively to the "first island chain" when and if the situation warrants such action.

And Russia is apparently along for the ride.

Notes
1. China, Russia condemn attempts to falsify WWII history .
2. China, Russia team up on territorial claims
3. Russian president's planned visit to Northern Territories angers Japan
4. Russia urges China, Japan to resolve maritime dispute through dialogue
5. China ire at sea chase signals wider reach
6. The Next Nuclear Arms Race
7. Treaty revisions turn down heat over islands

Peter J Brown is a freelance writer from Maine USA.

(Copyright 2010 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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