Wednesday, August 29, 2012 11:34:14 AM
By Francesco Sisci
BEIJING - Even in normal times, a quarrel between the world's second- and third-largest economies is important. In times of crisis, when the No 2 power, China, is the largest single contributor to the economic growth of the rest of the world, it becomes crucial for everyone.
The current tension between China and Japan, the third-largest economy, over a group of islets and rocks called Diaoyu in Chinese and Senkaku in Japanese runs the risk of shaking nerves throughout the region, which could then affect trade and development well outside the region.
This is not the first time there has been friction between Beijing and Tokyo over the islands, but the current situation is different from in the past.
Earlier conflicts directly involved fishing vessels or protesters from mainland China. That put Beijing in a weak position in international public opinion. It was a contest between a democracy (Japan) and an authoritarian regime (China), so it was almost a given that the world and the region would side with the former.
This time, however, the dispute involves protesters who went to the islands from Hong Kong and received some support from Taiwan. Hong Kong, although not a democracy, is a free territory, and its public is not controlled by Beijing. In fact some of the protesters claimed to be patriotic, though not supporters of the ruling Communist Party. Taiwan, meanwhile, is a mature democracy.
The latest moves on these islands then are not an act of aggression against a democracy, but something that consolidates pan-Chinese opinion, beyond the boundary of the People's Republic, on a delicate territorial issue.
In other words, Tokyo's position has become weaker than in the past, and is likely to weaken more as Japan continues to have border issues, especially with South Korea but also with Russia, again over some islets.
This may have been a well-crafted plan by Beijing to mobilize public opinion in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and then to put pressure on Tokyo. If so, Beijing appears to have taken a step up in its ability to mobilize strategic diplomacy and public opinion, and has now extended its influence to sensitive national issues in the de facto independent island of Taiwan.
This influence over Taiwan plays against Tokyo in another way as well. Taiwan, where in 1949 the Nationalist government fled the mainland after being defeated by the Communists, has always been a great US bulwark and outpost in Asia. The Chinese Nationalists were allies of the Americans against the Japanese during World War II. So swaying public opinion in Taiwan over the Senkakus casts some doubt on any support Tokyo may receive from Washington on the issue.
In this case, the border dispute with Japan somewhat paradoxically could shorten the distance between China and the US.
In truth, the Americans are extremely wary of all these controversies in one of the busiest seas in the world, and they are even more concerned about China's growing military presence in the region.
But the current developments create a situation in which Washington cannot easily take a stand, because it has to choose between two old allies, Taiwan and Japan, while a third ally, South Korea, is growing reluctant to join in another collaboration over a few islets.
The other possibility is that Beijing has not hatched a conspiracy but has only jumped on the bandwagon of protest ignited by activists in Hong Kong.
In any case, the whole thing proves that the national question, particularly with regard to Japan - the enemy of China in World War II, an old hatred that has never been put to rest - is crucial to the Chinese people, even for those outside the control of Beijing.
If this scenario has created such a situation with Japan, it could be repeated with Vietnam and the Philippines regarding other disputed islands in the South China Sea.
In other words, the defense of territory - in this case a never-defined stretch of sea - could have strong popular appeal in Taiwan and create a pan-Chinese sentiment, even extending to the Chinese minorities that dominate the economies of many countries in Southeast Asia. This would further complicate the already complex political geography of the region.
For now, in fact, the real impact of the story has been on trade and regional economics. But all involved now must try to rein in public opinion to avoid further incidents and a spiral of increasing tensions.
But this won't be easy. Even in authoritarian China, the growing freedom of the Internet makes "angry young men" (the network of militant Chinese nationalists) difficult for Beijing to control.
In addition, in the absence of some form of compromise, even if the tension eases this time, as is likely, the next time it might explode more violently.
Here there are two issues about Japan. On the one hand, looking at Japan's territorial issues from a European perspective, it is strange that Tokyo, defeated in World War II, a conflict started because of territorial ambitions, still argues with its neighbors over territory. It would be very difficult for Germany or Italy, Japan's allies in that war, to argue with their neighbors at this level over territory without arousing a wall of suspicion and resentment.
But the postwar Asian and European histories have been different. Japan was allowed to keep its emperor and was soon "deployed" as an active base for America's war effort in Korea in 1950, and many territorial issues have been left dormant. China usually distances itself from the common knowledge that Japan was defeated not by the Chinese but by the Americans in World War II, and that at the time of Japan's surrender to the US, Tokyo controlled territory that was home to two-thirds of the Chinese population.
These facts have not translated into real Chinese gratitude to the US, as China in the meantime became communist and allied itself to America's Cold War enemy the USSR, so Beijing had to erase the new enemy's contribution to victory. This in turn moved the US to use Japan as a pawn in a broader anti-communist containment and for decades gave leeway to the Japanese extreme right to preserve dreams of the old Japanese empire.
On the other hand, Japan's neighbors, including China, have routinely played down Tokyo's huge contribution to peace and development in the region, often considering it as some kind of retribution for past war damages.
Amid all these elements, there is no sign from Tokyo or its neighbors of a massive reconsideration of them, and they are bound to complicate issues like the Senkaku dispute. They could also help make the whole atmosphere more volatile around the maritime borders. In past days Chinese media reported that even Russia had intensified its naval patrols around the islands it contests with Japan. It is a message meant to appease angry Chinese youth, as Beijing does not want to be dragged into a conflict that could hurt its economic development. The message is: Do not worry, it is not just us, many other countries are concerned and getting angry with the Japanese, we don't have to be the first to start a war.
This also shows that China is the country with more to lose in protracted friction about these maritime issues. Beijing needs to get out of this bind, to build greater trust with the US, which could help find solutions to these issues, as some Chinese experts said in August at a conference in Aspen, Colorado. To this a former senior US diplomat responded that maritime issues could after all be not a huge deal, but what about China lending more help on the delicate issue of North Korea? This could create more trust between Beijing and Washington, which could also help smooth the maritime issues.
Francesco Sisci is a columnist for the Italian daily Il Sole 24 Ore and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org