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China and Japan: the domestic threat
The violent anti-Japanese demonstrations in China at the weekend and the accompanying extreme rhetoric on banners and from some media – “Nuke Japan!” – were probably inevitable once the government in Tokyo had announced that it would buy the islands at the centre of the current dispute with the People’s Republic.
‘Nuke Japan!’ After playing things quite cool in the initial stages of the dispute as described in my earlier posting, Beijing had to react with Wen Jiabao asserting that the Diaoyu-Senkaku islands are an inalienable part of Chinese territory and that the PRC would ‘absolutely make no concession’. Government ships were sent to the waters off the islands and meetings between Chinese and Japanese officials were cancelled. Tokyo may argue that buying the islands to prevent extreme nationalists getting hold of them is a pre-emptive placatory move but that was never going to wash on the streets of Mainland cities once anti-Japanese activists had got the bit between their teeth.
Soft landing – for how long? The probability is that after the outburst of anger and a spell of maritime sabre rattling, things will calm down as they have in the past when anti-Japanese street demonstrations have suddenly tailed off. China has no real interest in a confrontation with Japan, nor Japan with China. Economic cooperation is important to both countries. Tokyo may be Washington’s most important Asian ally but it poses no military threat to the Mainland and confrontation could only serve to help President Obama’s “Pacific pivot“.
Legacy of history. But there is no easy solution to the dispute in sight. Any soft landing would almost certainly prove temporary with new disputes popping up to face both Beijing and Tokyo with the test of catering to nationalism while not undermining one of the most important economic relationships on earth. Nor would a temporary period of calmer sailing do anything to solve the popular antagonism against “Japanese imperialism” stretching back more than a century to the war of 1894-5 when the “dwarf bandits” as the Chinese termed the Japanese were humiliated by the rising Asian power that went in to occupy Manchuria and stage a ruthless war of occupation from 1937-45.
In grand national terms, the swings and roundabouts of East Asia are in a new phase. First it was China’s era of great power climaxing under the Hugh Qing at the end of the 18th century. Then came Japan’s ascent, first military then economic. Now China is resurgent but Japan remains not so far behind, its importance often masked by its low profile, its special form of modernity, its political reticence and the lost decades.
Control challenge. Given that, whatever their rhetoric, Beijing and Tokyo will end up working to avoid an all-out conflict over such a minor issue, the aftermath of this episode for the PRC may be domestic rather than external. Coming just after the storm of speculation about Xi Jinping, the weekend demonstrations raise the question of the effectiveness of the central control mechanism in a rapidly evolving society where social media runs rings round the censor.
How far was the weekend anger on the streets genuine or engineered? Some of each of course, but the overall tone suggested spontaneous sentiment rather than orchestrated action. The fact that it was permitted could be taken as a sign of official approval or, equally, can be viewed as evidence that the authorities felt themselves unable to prevent it for fear of (a) not being able to clamp down (b) provoking yet more rage or (c) appearing unpatriotic.
The leadership seems caught. It has to stand up for Chinese interests even if, as US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said, it cannot be worth going to war over a pile of rocks in the sea. Domestic public opinion does matter in China, especially at a time of transition at the top and in the wake of the Bo Xilai affair with the police chief, Wang Lijun, going on trial this week.
The protest habit. But the system makes it hard for the elite to interact with the masses except in a formulaic manner. In a society of ever-growing personal liberty, people are therefore left to express themselves as they see fit until they run up against the barriers of official control invoked in the name of national stability. It is hard to apply those barriers when a patriotic cause is involved. Add in the social media element and one sees the difficulty the authorities have in containing the crowds.
So long as the subject matter of the protests remains Japan, things are containable. The danger for the regime would be if the manner of popular reaction imbedded itself and China went into protest mode across the board with no shortage of issues out there waiting to be vented.