By Augusto Soto/Barcelona
The protracted crisis between China and Japan over control of the island group known as the Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China is a bilateral dispute with more Asian and global reverberations than ever.
Beijing’s top-level absence of global annual financial meetings of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in Tokyo recently caused particular concern in the international community. It was clearly seen as another chapter of the maritime dispute between China and Japan triggered last August.
Analysts are divided between those who expect crisis de-escalation as in recent misunderstandings in 2005 and 2010 and those who foresee gloomier scenarios.
The trouble began on August 15, when Japanese authorities arrested Chinese citizens after they staged a protest in one of the islands claimed by China but controlled by Japan. One week later, Tokyo decided to nationalise three of the islands in order to avoid their purchase by Japanese nationalists. It provoked spiraling rage in several Chinese cities, which led to a boycott of Japanese products and halted production of some Japanese companies in China.
Meanwhile, a number of naval skirmishes have provoked the exchange of strong accusations and inconclusive talks.
Gone are the times of visionary statesmen heralding a new era of understanding. In the 60s, Japanese Prime Minister Shigero Yoshida declared: “Whilst we have much to learn from the West in terms of abstract logic, I remain convinced that Chinese literature and poetry are infinitely more valuable for their ability to grasp human relationships”.
In 1978, the then vice premier, Deng Xiaoping, started his historical trips in Japan, where he declared: “We learn from and pay respect to the Japanese people, who are great, brave and intelligent”.
The nineties also marked milestones when for the first time a Japanese emperor visited China and a Chinese head of State visited Japan. Unfortunately, more recently economic ties have been reinforced in sharp contrast with bilateral diplomacy.
Some analysts believe that dangerous escalation leading to war is impossible since both countries are part of the same global supply chain. Others stress that Washington is bound by treaty to defend Japan. That engagement would be tantamount to deterrence.
But, if in this crisis or in the next one it does not work exactly in that way, is the world ready to see the unleashing of trade wars or military clashes among giants for the islands in dispute?
It is clear that none of the parties intend proposing international arbitration to settle or mediate the ongoing dispute. Perhaps an ad hoc regional forum to handle risk management in order to avoid escalation could be considered. Of course, deciding ownership or shelving the issue of the islands should be left to both parties.
On the other hand, peace is a task for each generation. In 2005, China was hit by anti-Japanese demonstrations. Japan approved school books which critics said whitewashed its wartime past in Asia. In 2010 relations suffered after a misunderstanding lead to the arrest of a Chinese trawler captain near the islands.
Current perceptions based in history certainly play a significant role in the dispute. It is perhaps safe to assume that in the future, no matter how difficult it might seem, parts of past history could be re-written by both countries.
Germany and France, foes in World War II as well as in several wars in the past have recently launched a common textbook project explaining their own conflicts. It is one of the most meaningful peace initiatives launched in Europe in the last 60 years, actually a few decades in which most of the continent has enjoyed its longest period of peace in its history. This accomplishment is, by the way, one of the pillars of the 2012 Peace Nobel Prize.- Global Experts
l Augusto Soto is an Asia Pacific and Eurasia analyst specialising in China. He has authored dozens of articles and analysis on China, articles on the Asia Pacific and Eurasia regions in specialised magazines and books published in Spain, Latin America, China, Kazakhstan and the US. As a consultant based in Barcelona, Soto’s work has focused on Chinese contemporary politics, international relations, including intercultural issues and conflict prevention.
* Global Experts is a project of the UN Alliance of Civilizations.
Escalation unlikely in the dispute
By Olivier Guillard/Paris
While critical events in Asia are usually centred on well-known crisis theatres (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Korean peninsula, etc.), in the last few months, the attention of the international community is increasingly focused on Northeast Asia, where an unusual Sino-Japanese effervescence, made of nationalistic declarations, diplomatic frictions and martial gesticulations fed by Beijing and Tokyo is taking place.
In Europe, the public opinion – not really aware neither of the complicated historical relations, nor of the trade links existing between China and Japan – started to be moved by the turn of events when TV networks showed Chinese, Japanese and even Taiwanese navy vessels manoeuvre close to a miniscule and uninhabited archipelago (Diaoyu for Beijing, Senkaku for Tokyo) whose sovereignty is - to say the least - disputed by these Asian giants.
Hitherto, the Chinese repeated warnings, the on-site visits of Japanese dignitaries, the recent nationalisation of part the archipelago by the Nippon government as well as the renewed calls for restraint originating from the outside world (especially from Washington) had only generated modest attention.
From concern to the fear of a deteriorating situation leading to a more serious scenario, editorialists and pessimistic defence experts were quick to detect the signs of a likely China-Japan conflict. An assessment, fortunately simplistic, that will deceive its candid promoters.
Various elements militate in favour of the conflict that will never be thesis. First of all, in this subtle northeastern Asian matrix built on rival ambitions, appearances and declarations do not necessarily translate into actions.
But, if Beijing shouts so loudly, its domestic political agenda is for something in this volatile equation. A delicate once-in-a decade power transition is underway in China; a moment not exactly favourable to present a weak visage to the largest demography on earth and to the rest of the world.
In Tokyo, the domestic political context is similarly weighing heavily on this interstate dispute.
Tired after a succession of difficult domestic challenges to cope with (earthquake, tsunami, nuclear disaster) and harassed by a political opposition avid to get back to power – whatever the national price and the regional coasts -, the cabinet of Prime minister Noda is not ready to die without fighting. With a general election, rendezvous scheduled in December - resulting in a plausible alternance -, the stakes are high; matching the Chinese posture is a political necessity.
Even so, despite some appearances again, neither the Japanese nor the Chinese authorities are willing to go beyond the current level of tension. Second and Third economies in the world, China and Japan have both so much to lose in any sort of negative spiral of events developing.
In political, economic and trade circles – may be even in the hawkish military and ultra nationalist spheres – , everybody is dearly convinced of this obvious reality. In 2011, the Sino-Japanese trade reached a new high, totaling the $345bn mark (+14% on the previous mark).
For China – whose GDP growth rate in 2012 is expected to be the weakest in years (around +7.5%) -, in this period of contraction of the world economy (i.e in Europe), Japan remains its first import and second export partner. For Tokyo, the table is even clearer: its economy was in recession in 2011 (-0.7%) and uncertainties remain on its short-term capabilities.
China remains its first import and export partner. The kind of critical level of relationships no one voluntarily sacrifices, just for small pieces of rocks (however rich in precious fisheries and energy resources), even in the name of a sacred national pride. No matter if more anti-Japanese rallies are staged through Chinese cities or if Japanese exports to China temporarily suffer an unwelcome significant fall.
In this area familiar with typhoons and severe weather, even if this impressive Sino-Japanese thunderstorm may still – for sure – last for some time, this tempest shall definitely not transform into a destructive tsunami that no one really wants to happen, in Beijing as well as in Tokyo.- Global Experts
* Olivier Guillard is Asia Research director for the Paris-based thinktank IRIS (Institut de Relations Internationales et Strategiques). He previously worked for the French ministry of defence as a geopolitical expert, with a chief focus on South Asian affairs.
* Global Experts is a project of the UN Alliance of Civilizations.
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