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Tensions with China reveal Japanese politics to be on the rocks

Nationalist rhetoric won't conceal domestic political woes.

Former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi
Former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. Photograph: Getty Images

The current standoff between China and Japan over a group of rocky islands in the East China Sea is taking place amid leadership changes in both countries that threaten to escalate tensions beyond the control of either government. In the politician’s playbook, there is nothing so effective as a crisis abroad to distract the public from problems at home. But politicians stir up nationalist sentiments at their peril. Once mobilised, popular nationalism can become difficult to contain.

In the past month, Japan’s two main political parties held leadership elections in which all contenders took a tough stance on Japanese sovereignty over the islands that the Japanese call the Senkaku and the Chinese the Diaoyu. Similarly, in China, as CCP leaders prepare to pass power to the next generation of the communist cadre, nationalist rhetoric on the dispute with Japan is being deployed to deflect attention from intraparty rivalries, a decelerating economy and a growing wealth gap.

This is not the first time that Beijing has encouraged anti-Japanese protests to channel popular discontent away from the government. In 2004, angry protesters burned Japanese flags after seven Chinese activists were arrested for landing on the disputed islands, which are currently under Japanese control. From 2001 to 2006, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s annual visits to the Yasukuni Shrine (a memorial to Japan’s war dead that includes 14 “Class A” war criminals from World War II) provided another convenient pretext for allowing Chinese citizens to let off steam.

Provocation for the current crisis in Sino-Japanese relations rests mainly with Tokyo’s ring-wing governor Shintaro Ishihara, who in April announced plans for the city to buy three of the disputed islands from their private Japanese owner. To put an end to Ishihara’s campaign, which raised millions of dollars in public donations, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda last month nationalised the islands at a cost to the taxpayer of two billion yen. Backed into a corner by the maverick governor, Prime Minister Noda took action to stop Ishihara’s meddling from causing further damage to Japan’s relations with China. But Noda’s motives have been misinterpreted by leaders in Beijing, who accuse Japan of “illegally occupying” the islands, and who have done little to quell attacks on Japanese businesses in cities across China.

By forcing Prime Minister Noda’s hand, Ishihara has put the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute back on the domestic political agenda. In doing so, he has given a much needed boost to Japan’s conservatives ahead of an impending general election. For the majority of Japanese voters, the territorial dispute with China is just one election issue among many, and far from the most pressing. But for power-hungry politicians, promises to stand up to Chinese aggression are easier made than plans to lift Japan from the economic quagmire in which it has been stuck for more than a decade. With the Japanese media amplifying anti-Chinese rhetoric, it is possible that the nationalist bandwagon will gain momentum as the election approaches.

Attempts by right-wing Japanese politicians to whip up patriotic protests against China have so far fallen on deaf ears. On 18 September, a rally by the nationalist organisation Ganbare Nippon in Tokyo—a city of more than 13 million—attracted around only 50 protesters. But Japanese public hostility towards China has been growing in recent years in response to China’s flexing of its new found economic and military muscle. China’s ascendance has eclipsed Japanese influence in East Asia and beyond. In August 2010, China overtook Japan as the world’s second largest economy. The following month, bilateral relations plummeted after the Japanese Coast Guard arrested the crew of a Chinese fishing trawler that had rammed their vessel in an altercation near the disputed Senkakus/Diaoyus.  Beijing reacted by withholding exports of rare earth metals that are essential to Japanese manufacturing until Tokyo releasing the Chinese crew. This exchange sent a clear signal that henceforth China will use its economic might to uphold its territorial claims. In the aftermath of the incident, a survey for Japan’s Yomiuri newspaper found that 84 per cent of Japanese citizens viewed China with distrust. With Chinese government ships now patrolling in waters close to the disputed islands almost every day, Japanese public opinion is unlikely to warm towards China anytime soon.

It is not only China’s actions on the high seas that are enflaming Japanese suspicion and resentment. In recent weeks, China has placed full-page adverts in prominent western newspapers asserting is claim to the islands.

China’s tough posture may have inadvertently helped to elect ultra-conservative Shinzo Abe, the grandson of a wartime minister, as president of the opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Abe, who was prime minister for a year from September 2006, is already infamous for his support of conservative causes such as amending Japan’s pacifist constitution and introducing legislation to encourage patriotism among Japanese youth. Despite ending his previous pitiable premiership in hospital, supposedly suffering from exhaustion, Abe may yet defeat Prime Minister Noda at the upcoming election.

The ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) languishes on 14 per cent in the polls. Abe’s LDP fares better on 26 per cent, but can hardly start planning its victory party. Almost half of Japanese voters remain undecided, a damning indictment of the misplaced priorities of Japan’s political elite.

Surveys of public opinion consistently find the economy the issue of top concern to Japanese voters. Since China is Japan’s largest trading partner, current tensions in bilateral relations can only harm Japan’s beleaguered economy. In the face of anti-Japanese protests, hundreds of Japanese businesses in China have been forced to temporarily suspend their operations. Equally, China cannot easily continue to grow without Japanese investment.

Intensifying their nationalist rhetoric in response to Senkakus/Diaoyus crisis has not helped Japanese or Chinese politicians conceal their domestic political woes. Instead, tensions between China and Japan have had negative repercussion for both states, especially in the economic sphere. If Shinzo Abe is elected Japan’s prime minister it will not be because of his hardline stance on the Senkakus/Diaoyus, but because of his opponents’ failure to deliver fiscal responsibility and economic growth. But an Abe victory may be misinterpreted in China as a vote for a conservative-nationalist revival, further heightening tensions between the two countries.

Tina Burrett is an Assistant Professor of International Relations at Temple University, Japan.