Tuesday, November 05, 2013

The Chinese View Of The Senkakus

Over at East Asia Forum, Ren Xiao, the Director of Center for the Study of Chinese Foreign Policy, has published an essay describing in broad strokes background to the Chinese government's stance on the Diaoyus/Senkakus debate. It is a worthwhile read, and I say that as one who has gone on television to defend the Abe government's statements and actions as regards the Senkakus. (Link)

The key points for one on an insignificant perch in Tokyo are:

1) the Chinese government wants it both ways -- hysterically denouncing last year's nationalization of three islands as an inexcusable deviance from the status quo (bad!) and sending its ships into the territorial waters described by the islands to establish a constant physical presence (good!).

2) the Chinese government feels, with some degree of justification, that it has been played by the government of Japan, or at least by its prime ministers. It thought that when money-machine-political phenomenon, medium-bore construction magnate Tanaka Kakuei agreed in off-the-record talks to shelve the issue of the sovereignty of the islands, that it had just cut a verbal deal with Japan. They do not want to acknowledge that the only person they cut a deal with was with a multiply-disgraced and now seriously dead former prime minister. They also do not want to admit that a verbal deal is as good as the paper it is (not) written on.

3) "The history question" comes up, in such a manner as to obfuscate responsibility:
This difficult situation is exacerbated by history. China was invaded by Japan and suffered atrocities at the hands of Japanese imperial forces. These acts live on in China's collective memory, especially because Japanese politicians insist on touching this wound again and again. Relations with Japan have always been a complex and sensitive issue in China's foreign policy. Every time Japan and the Diaoyu/Senkaku dispute comes up in the news, people in China become emotional and angry. Chinese leaders and officials cannot afford to be seen as soft towards Japan.
The explanation "people in China become emotional and angry" may be possibly the worst rationalization ever for national policy. It is also an indication of how frayed is the legitimacy of the current Chinese government. China's leaders, for all their pretensions to dictatorial power, have to forswear national self-interest in favor of behavior capable of keeping calm the mob at their doors.

As for the explanation that memories of Japanese misdeeds in the 1930s and 40s remain fresh and painful "because Japanese politicians insist on touching this wound again and again" -- commenter "Arthur" points out the author's glaring dereliction:
And not even in part because the Chinese government insists on pointing out the wound, digging its fingers in and saying "See? See how painful that is?" again and again.
4) Xi Jinping's and the Chinese government's refusal to hold high-level meetings (to my knowledge there has been only the trilateral meeting of the education ministers) much less a bilateral summit, with Abe Shinzo and his government, is petulance not worthy of second grade elementary school recess. However, and this is an indication of how much of a rules-bound giant China has become, not meeting Abe Shinzo or his top ministers is the only card the Chinese government has. Everything and anything else -- rioting, trade curbs, landings on the islands in question -- and China finds itself in the international doghouse, be it with the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, the majority of members of ASEAN, et cetera. The only action the Chinese leadership can undertake which does not instigate institutionalized punitive proceedings -- and here is where the similarity between the stance of a nation of 1.3 billion and the miffed seven year-old hits home -- is the refusal to hold someone's hand.

All in favor of a web of international commitments as a way of keeping the peace, raise your hands.

The problem for the Chinese government: if it did, indeed, "grow up" and start behaving like a collection of adults, it would have nothing left with which it could placate its emotional and angry non-electorate.

5) I am not sure if the author, if writing in Chinese, would use the verb "force" one finds at the end of this passage:
One of the steps China has taken is to send in Chinese ships to the disputed waters for regular patrol and 'law enforcement'. The objective is to bring about de facto joint jurisdiction and joint patrolling in the relevant waters as a way to deny Japan's unilateral 'control' of the islands. Beijing wants to force Japan to change its 'no territorial dispute' position. {Emphasis added}
Prime Minister Abe has made it very clear, and has the backing of his electorate behind him on this point, that under no circumstances will any change in the Japanese government's position come as the result of force (Link). Any attempt to "force Japan to change" will be met by unshakable and fierce resistance.

In a larger sense, what we are seeing in Sino-Japanese and Japanese-South Korea government relations (and here I am veering away from Ren Xiao's essay) are the consequences of the triumph of democracy in East Asia -- and the failures of the habits of the governments and parties in the region to keep pace with the internal changes undergone by their respective societies. The main elements of the framework of relations between the states of the region were thrown up by authoritarian or semi-authoritarian governments, by leaders who could make private deals amongst themselves. These leaders shrugged at issues that did not interest them and faced muted possibilities of public backlash for the deals they negotiated.

Today's leaders do not have the liberty of action their ancestors -- and in the case of the main trio of Xi, Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye, "ancestors" is the correct term (not just a figure of speech but an actual description of the persons involved). For these children and grandchildren of giants the publics of China and South Korea are emotional and angry. Perhaps they always were. The change is that these publics are now also empowered, capable of forcing their political leaders to act according to the dictates of the mob, be it smoldering or flash.

The conundrum for Japan's policy makers is what to do over the long-term with neighbors who seem to have lost the capacity to, as Gordon Sumner memorably urged, "learn to throw the past away." Certainly a surrender of one's positions is one option -- one that has its advocates in the "China and Korea are returning to their original places in the Asian order" school. Surrender is in fact the only option for Japan's policy makers as regards the Dokdo/Takeshima dispute.

For the Senkakus, though, no such option exists. Whatever ornate vision of a nation's glory/destiny one may espouse, a democratically elected government's surrendering to a dictatorial government is an abomination. This is what the Chinese people, for all its trumpeted greatness and its extraordinary size, has to come to understand: that in any conceivable, livable world order, the tiniest democracy, the merest gathering of a few tens of thousands of souls on a mountain massif or a lonely atoll, outranks China.

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