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     Sep 15, 2012

Japan and China on a conflicting course
By Karl Lee

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

Months after Tokyo governor, Shintaro Ishihara's island purchase plan, the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands territorial spat has shown no signs of abating from both Tokyo and Beijing. Worst still, the likelihood that the islands row would escalate into a full blown political crisis has significantly increased after the Japanese Cabinet decided to wrap up the purchase deal with the islands' owner.

Unlike previous cases, the latest handling of the crisis has shown obvious misperceptions between the two nations. In so far as


China's repeated claim on the disputed islands is not recognized by Tokyo, Japan's handling of the issue is also not seen as a conflict resolution gesture to Beijing but rather, a serious encroachment of its interest and territorial integrity.

The fear of diplomatic backlash with China if the issue is played up by the right-wing Ishihara required the Japanese central government's swift response to nationalize the islands before spiraling out of its control. What the Yoshihiko Noda administration hoped to achieve out of this is to preserve the islands' status quo where the issue is kept from affecting the overall Sino-Japanese relations. Politically too, Noda is using the issue to garner more public and internal support after the passing of its unpopular sales tax hike bill in August and the coming Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) presidential election.

The Chinese government, meanwhile, thinks otherwise. As part of its territories which is currently administered by Tokyo due to historical reasons, there existed a dispute between the two nations and any unilateral attempt by Tokyo is a direct violation against Beijing's national interest and recognition.

The latest islands bid, be it symbolic or "legal", is viewed by the Chinese leadership as an effort to "wrest control" over the islands against China's interests and thereby, alter the present status quo of the islands. Moreover, the purchase has also shown Tokyo's unwillingness to bend on the dispute, something which the Chinese authorities had hoped for in the past.

The road ahead
Unlike the September 2010 trawler collision near the contented islands, Beijing seemed to have learnt a valuable lesson not to over-play its card as a means of forcing the Japanese government to back down. So far, Beijing has remained reactive to Tokyo's move, preferring to observe as to how far the unusually assertive Noda administration would pursue on the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands case before taking stern measures to stake its claim on the islands.

In fact, recent discourses by Chinese leaders have hinted that Beijing may have reached its acceptable limits following the Japanese government's unusual assertiveness in ramming ahead the purchase plan of the disputed islands.

As demonstrated during Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in early September, Chinese President Hu Jintao's outright rejection of any official sideline meeting with Prime Minister Noda had signaled that another round of frozen Sino-Japanese diplomatic ties reminiscent of the Koizumi years may be well ahead of us. Even the 15-minute informal conservation with his Japanese counterpart was marred with Hu's serious warning on the repercussions that the islands purchase would inflict to the overall bilateral relations coupled with his reiteration of China's will to defend its sovereignty at all costs.

A day later, on September 10, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, also reaffirmed China's unwavering stand to stake its claim on the islands and pledged against making any concession with Japan regarding its islands' sovereignty. By far, these two statements are the strongest ever been by members of the top leadership ever since the islands purchase proposal was mooted by Ishihara in April.

At the same time, there is also news that the People's Liberation Army (PLA) is stepping up its military preparedness in the middle of the crisis. On September 6, the Jinan Military Region held a military operation in which it focused on a marine group landing and taking control of an island near the Yellow Sea. It seemed to indicate that the PLA is seriously contemplating similar operation if there is a need for military action on the Diaoyu Islands issue. Apart from that, Beijing may choose to employ its economic pressure once again against Japan after its successful attempt following the Chinese trawler collision incident in September 2010.
For Japan, it is highly questionable on whether the Noda administration is prepared or able to confront the prospect of temporary or small-scale skirmish with Beijing. While the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) already had an operation plan to defend the Senkaku Islands, the weak central government mired with a myriad of problems, from internal party bickering to domestic economic woes, meant there is no guarantee that Tokyo is ready for full mobilization of all its resources in response against Beijing's armed and economic reprisals. Also, the whole situation would become extremely dangerous and complicated if Japan seeks cooperation from its close ally, the United States in order to respond to China's retaliatory measures at an advantage.

With all these developments in sight, it is highly skeptical to concur to any view that China would take more conciliatory approach as evident in the South China Sea dispute. The central leadership transition later this year, strong anti-Japanese sentiment in China and grave public outcry to what is perceived as Beijing's passive take on the islands issue, meant that the same instance of Beijing's diplomacy of restraint toward Japan may not apply this time around.

It is crystal clear that the Noda administration's nationalization drive of the islands has failed in alleviating concern from the Chinese top leadership and defusing the Sino-Japanese territorial tension. On the contrary, it heightened political apprehension with Beijing as the latter viewed the move as changing the status quo of the islands. That China's reprisals against Japan may begin with the signing of a purchase agreement between Tokyo and the islands' private owner, has shown that we are braving for a political storm ahead of us.

Karl C L Lee is the Master reader of the University of Malaya, Malaysia. His research focus is on China-Japan relations in Southeast Asia and the wider East Asia.

(Copyright 2012 Karl C L Lee)

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.

Point of no return in the South China Sea



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