Tensions with China reveal Japanese politics to be on the rocks

Nationalist rhetoric won't conceal domestic political woes.

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.


Former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.