Japanese PM says Beijing’s educational system fuels hostility over rival territorial claims
China has a “deeply ingrained” need to spar with Japan and other Asian neighbours over territory, because the ruling Communist party uses the disputes to maintain strong domestic support, Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe said in an interview.
Clashes with neighbours, notably Japan, play to popular opinion, Abe said, given a Chinese education system that emphasises patriotism and “anti-Japanese sentiment”.
Abe’s theory on the entrenched motivation behind China’s recent naval aggression helps explain why he has spent more effort trying to counter the Chinese than make peace with them: he thinks the fierce dispute with China over an island chain in the East China Sea isn’t going away any time soon. Abe spoke about China in what aides described as unusually detailed terms, laying out challenges that Chinese leaders might face if other Asian countries, unnerved by Beijing’s maritime expansionism, decide to reduce trade and other economic ties. China’s government would be hurt by such moves, Abe said, because without economic growth it “will not be able to control the 1.3 billion people … under the one-party rule”.
Abe also laid out his plans for deterrence, which include boosting military spending and strengthening ties with Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and other nations that share concerns about Beijing. Abe said the US presence in Asia is “critical” to deter China from taking territory controlled by other countries. His comments came in an interview with the Washington Post.
In recent years China has played an increasingly boisterous role in the South China Sea, claiming a massive sphere of territory that includes some of the world’s most trafficked shipping lanes and overlaps with claims of half a dozen other countries. For Japan, the dispute with China focuses on a chain of remote islands in the East China Sea known to Japanese as the Senkaku and to Chinese as the Diaoyu, several of which Japan’s government purchased in September after previously renting. “What is important first and foremost,” Abe said, “is to make [China] realise that they would not be able to change the rules or take away somebody’s territorial water or territory by coercion or intimidation.”
Abe’s assessment of China sounds like a version of the one that experts in Beijing give of Japan, which they say has shifted to the right on foreign policy and security issues in a bid to recover clout and pride lost during two decades of economic stagnation. Abe’s criticism of Chinese education is also notable because, during his first stint as prime minister six years ago, he revised a law to encourage a more patriotic curriculum in Japan’s classrooms.
Abe became prime minister for a second time in December, after making a string of far-right campaign pledges to revise Japan’s pacifist constitution and loosen certain restrictions on the armed forces. He also promised to be tougher on China than the previous government, the deeply unpopular and moderate Democratic party of Japan, which was voted out of office.
But two months into his term, Abe looks more like a pragmatist than a strident nationalist, focusing mainly on a new, and so far successful, economic policy to weaken the yen and spur inflation. His latest popularity rating is 71%, according to the Yomiuri newspaper, a stunning mark in a nation that has cycled through six consecutive one-year leaders. “I have succeeded already in changing the general mood and atmosphere that was prevalent in Japan,” Abe said.
The question is whether Abe will change course and begin pushing for his controversial rightwing hobbyhorses after July parliamentary elections that could help his Liberal Democratic party build an overwhelming majority and leave Abe emboldened. One concern is that Abe could revise earlier government apologies for atrocities committed by Japan’s second world war military. Abe, in the interview, said he would some day like to make a “future-oriented” statement aimed at Japan’s neighbours, but he did not elaborate on what its message would be.
Beijing has responded to Japan’s nationalisation of the Senkaku islands by sending surveillance ships and aircraft into Japanese territory, drawing Japan into a risky showdown in which the neighbours chase each other around the waters and airspace of uninhabited rocky outcroppings. Any armed conflict could draw in the United States, which is treaty-bound to protect Japan.
While historical animosities are at the root of Japan’s territorial dispute with China, the maritime conflict is relatively new. During the interview, Abe portrayed China’s actions as part of a 35-year shift that began when the Communist party opened its once-controlled economy. China’s government has since had to abandon the hope of nationwide economic equality – “one of its pillars of legitimacy”, Abe said – forcing it to create “some different pillars”, including rapid economic growth and patriotism.
“What is unfortunate, however,” Abe added, “is that, in the case of China, teaching patriotism [is equivalent to] teaching anti-Japanese sentiment. In other words, their education policy of teaching patriotism has become even more pronounced as they started the reform and opening policy.”
Abe said China’s tactics at sea are yielding “strong support” domestically. Those tactics, some analysts say, also could prove financially lucrative if China gains control of shipping lanes and access to rich fishing territory, and extracts hydrocarbon reserves.
But he warned that China’s sparring with its neighbours could backfire, potentially undermining trade partnerships and causing skittishness among foreign investors. “Such behaviour is going to have an effect on their economic activity at the end of the day,” he said, “because it will lead to losing the confidence of the international community, which will result in less investments in China. I believe it is fully possible to have China change their policy once they gain that recognition,” he said.
China Accuses Japan of Provoking Tensions
HONG KONG – China accused Japan on Thursday of provoking maritime tensions that have dogged their relations by harassing Chinese ships, continuing a succession of tit-for-tat allegations that reflect increasing distrust between the two countries.
A spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of National Defense, Geng Yansheng, made the accusations on the same day that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe likened recent intrusions by Chinese ships into Japanese-controlled waters near contested islands to Argentina’s 1982 invasion of the Falkland Islands, which set off a brief war with Britain.
Tensions over the East China Sea islands, known as the Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, deepened earlier this month when Japan said that a Chinese navy frigate had briefly used a missile-directing radar to lock onto a Japanese military ship. China vehemently denied doing that.
At a briefing for Chinese journalists in Beijing, Mr. Geng, the defense spokesman, repeated that denial and said he had proof that Japan would be to blame for any mishaps.
“For a long time, Japan has closely tracked Chinese vessels and craft to monitor and interfere with them,” Mr. Geng said, according to a transcript on the Chinese defense ministry website.
“This is the source of the maritime security problems between China-Japan,” he said. “The Chinese side has ample evidence of this, and reserves the right to take corresponding measures.”
Mr. Geng suggested that the Japanese prime minister, Mr. Abe, was seeking to kindle tensions.
“China has always taken maritime safety very seriously, and does not want to see accidents at sea,” Mr. Geng said. “But the Japanese leader has repeatedly made provocative statements, exaggerated the China threat, and made much of military issues, intentionally provoking military confrontation.”
In a speech to Japan’s Parliament, however, Mr. Abe, used a comparison with the war in 1982 between Britain and Argentina over the Falklands Islands to cast China as the provocateur. He cited the memoir of the British prime minister at the time, Margaret Thatcher, who said her decision to go to war as an effort to defend the principle that rule of law should prevail over the use of force.
“I want to appeal to international society that in modern times, efforts to change the status quo by the use of force will justify nothing,” Mr. Abe said, referring to the current standoff with China.
The festering dispute over the islands erupted in September, when Japan bought three of the five islands from a private owner in what it said was as an attempt to stop them from falling into the hands of an ardent Japanese nationalist. China, however, called the purchase a provocative act that effectively denied its territorial claims, and occasionally violent protests broke out in dozens of Chinese cities.
In the months since, China has sought to demonstrate its claim to the islands by sending government vessels and military ships and aircraft near them, where Japanese Coast Guard ships conduct patrols.
On Friday, Japan said it had asked the Chinese government for an explanation of why it placed several buoys in waters near the disputed islands. A Chinese official said on Tuesday that the buoys are for monitoring the weather, despite Japanese media reports that they could be used for tracking Japanese submarines.
At the news briefing, Mr. Geng, the spokesman, repeated China’s denials that it was behind Internet hacking attacks aimed at United States government, corporate and media websites. He said the Chinese Ministry of National Defense’s website and another Chinese website devoted to military news were targeted by an average total of 144,000 hacking attacks from abroad a month last year, almost two-thirds of which came from the United States.
He did not explain how he defined such hacking attacks, nor say if any were successful.
South China Sea: The zero-sum game
The Chinese have shown far greater alacrity in resolving disputes over land boundaries with neighbours than in drawing lines across international waters that they claim. A nation with land borders with 14 countries has settled its disputes with 10 of them, but finds it difficult to resolve its problems in the South China Sea.
China’s claim lines envelop almost the entire sea. China and Vietnam already fought over the South China Sea in 1974 and 1988, and the Philippines, Brunei, Taiwan, Malaysia and Indonesia are also vocal about what they say are Chinese transgressions into their waters.
The South China Sea is enviable maritime real estate. Through it run sea lanes that provide passage for more than half the world’s oil tanker traffic. Its hydrocarbon and mineral resources reportedly are substantial. Fishing rights also are essential for every country in the region.
The countries that dispute China’s claims are not on a par with Beijing’s military might and some of them are looking to the United States for help — including the Philippines and Vietnam. Notwithstanding Chinese pressures that kept the last ASEAN summit from issuing a joint communiqué, most ASEAN countries, barring Cambodia and Laos, lean more toward the United States.
India, Japan and the United States are now taking a closer look. Some ASEAN nations, especially Vietnam and Philippines have urged India to show greater interest in the area. Joint exploration activities with non-regional partners could prompt more regional intervention.
China has significant business interests with its South China Sea contestants. It is the kind of case in which the rational needs of business should help fix political boundary disputes, but that has not happened in this case. Meanwhile, the ASEAN nations have not been able to take a common stance, primarily because they fear economic distress should China penalise them economically.
Such measures could be varied. Chinese economic tools could attempt to instigate citizens of the targeted country against their own governments, thus creating domestic political pressure. China has also invested heavily in these countries and they could experience deceleration should the Chinese reduce investments.
However, it would not be prudent to give undue weightage to possible arm-twisting by China. Chinese economic relations are bilateral, and retaliations, especially if these are coordinated, would cause them concern.
India’s shores don’t touch the South China Sea, but it must pay attention to how the problem works itself out. China occupies 30,000 square kilometres of land in Aksai Chin that India considers its own. China also claims almost the entirety of Arunachal Pradesh in India’s extreme northeast. A China sea victory would embolden Beijing along the India-Tibet border.
Notwithstanding the stated neutrality of the Americans, there is reason for concern that should the South China Sea start to simmer, it would be difficult for the situation to remain a regional confrontation. Of course, the nations involved in the South China Sea imbroglio have responsible governments, and hopefully, the new Chinese leadership will also prove its dexterity more in diplomacy rather than coercion.
The sea lanes must remain open for global shipping, irrespective of national interests. Natural resources must remain open to more than one nation. To allow a different outcome will muddy the waters not just of southeast Asia but also those of the Himalayan lakes and glaciers. That would be a result that would satisfy no one.
Can China, Japan avoid clash in 2013?
In much of the world, the long curve of history continues dragging nations to the brink of conflict. Take Northeast Asia, where recent tensions between China and Japan risk erupting into conflict. The Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, home to rocky outcroppings and nearby resource rich waters, have become the latest potential flashpoint.
What started as a manageable confrontation in the East China Sea between Chinese fishing vessels and Japanese Coast Guard cutters has now escalated well beyond a dispute over natural resources. Chinese fighter jets have shadowed Japanese planes in the skies above. Japan has threatened to firewarning shots. A hawkish Chinese general has warned that would be their only shot, while Beijing announced plans to formally survey the islands. The U.S. hasweighed in against any unilateral action that challenges Japan’s administration of the area.
If there’s a red line where rhetoric and posturing turns into open conflict (intended or otherwise) we’re close to crossing it.
And neither side shows any signs of meaningful compromise with a hawkish Shinzo Abe back as Japan’s prime minister, and Xi Jinping inheriting an increasingly nationalistic country in transition. The spiral of escalation, once started, can be difficult to unwind, especially once any real shots are fired by the increasing number of naval ships and air force patrols. Similarly, if either country attempts to land on the islands domestic calls for retaliation will be hard, if not impossible, to resist.
Further complicating this current territorial flare-up is a centuries old rivalry. An economically emboldened China, with a military budget to match, has begun reasserting itself as a regional power. For centuries, it was the undisputed hub of the region. But redressing past harm, either from early 20th Century unequal trade relations or Word War II remain a potent force in its foreign policy, a legacy Europe has managed to overcome. Enemy and ally alike integrated into NATO decades ago with Germany and Italy sitting alongside the U.S., Britain and France. Asia needs, but sorely lacks, an influential or even coherent regional security organization. Nothing of the sort exists or is planned.
There are, it is true, some small positive signs. Japan sent, and China received an official delegation to discuss the territorial dispute. Former Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama visited China’s Nanjing Massacre memorial, which marks Imperial Japan’s World War II atrocities. And just today, Bloomberg reported that Xi was said by a Japanese envoy to be considering holding a summit to discuss the crisis.
So, for now at least, the lines of communication remain open while both sides try to rein in their more hawkish extremes. But space for rational discussion has been shrinking under the pressure of nationalistic vitriol, adding to the risk of a conflict that would have devastating results for the region and international trade.
Yet conflict has never been preordained. New histories can and have been forged. Consider the U.S.-Vietnam relationship of today versus just forty years ago. Trade has replaced hostilities. Americans travel to tourist destinations in straw hats rather than as soldiers in helmets.
While the past should not be forgotten, neither should it be allowed to replay itself in an endless, self-destructive loop. Hopefully that’s a lesson not lost on Beijing and Tokyo in 2013.