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
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Meet Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the far left candidate gaining momentum in the French election

Ahead of the socialist candidate in the polls, the leftwinger has become a YouTube star and has more followers than Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

There are seven of them: six men and one woman will face each other tonight in the last of three debates leading to the first round of the French left’s primary on Sunday. Seven, a holy number: how could it possibly go wrong?

With the notable exception of 2002 – which saw Jacques Chirac face far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen – a socialist candidate has been in the second round of every presidential election since 1974. But given Marine Le Pen’s steady and comfortable advance in the polls, France will probably see one of its two main parties, the conservative Republicans or the Socialist party, excluded from the second round. But what if both of them were?

Two serious contenders are gaining momentum. One of them is Emmanuel Macron, François Hollande’s former economy minister currently third in the polls, and the other is Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

Mélenchon is 65. He is no newbie in French politics. He joined the Socialist party in the 1970s, was a senator for years and served as a junior minister from 2000 to 2002. He has always been an outspoken character and has certainly always been heavily to the left of the socialist party. It was no surprise to see him quit the party when it fell into disarray in 2008.

He launched the boldly named “Left Party” and stood for the 2012 presidential election, finishing in a respectable fourth place behind Hollande, Nicolas Sarkozy and Le Pen with 11.1 per cent of the votes. During the presidential campaign, he attracted media attention with his fiery speeches, brash style and, ironically, distinct hate of…the media.

Mélenchon has over the years very cleverly positioned himself as the people’s candidate. He has unfairly been referred to as a populist by his detractors. Anyone who has spent a little bit of time one-on-one with him will tell you that he has strong beliefs and is driven by more than just personal ambition.

Mélenchon passionately defends the idea of a new Republic that gives power back to the people and abolishes the “presidential monarchy”, wants more fiscal justice, a review of the European treaties to put an end to “austerity policies”, and a new ecological order which would see France drop nuclear power.

In more ways than one, his agenda is a traditional French hard-left platform, but the package is new. And therein lies his popularity.

Mélenchon is not just a man of strong beliefs, he is also an astute politician. At a time when many voters have become disillusioned with party politics, Mélenchon has freed himself of party bonds and is campaigning on a platform aiming to reach far beyond his traditional voters. He has branded his movement La France insoumise “Unsubmissive France” and uses similar rhetoric to citizen-based movements like Los Indignados in Spain.

To attract younger voters, Mélenchon successfully took to YouTube. He recently commented on having over 140,000 followers on the video-sharing website, which is more than Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, and boasted about reaching 10 million views. On 5 February, he will hold a campaign rally in Lyons and in Paris. He will be physically present in Lyons and his hologram will address the crowds in Paris.

Unlike Macron, he is proud of his left heritage and dreams of nothing less than seeing the Socialist candidate leave the race and support him as the candidate of a unified left. The polls are currently placing him ahead of whoever wins the left’s primary.

Mélenchon is successfully capitalising on left-wing voters’ disappointment in the Socialist party following Hollande’s presidency. He is holding a rally today in Florange, an industrial town that symbolises the French industrial crisis, as the state has tried and failed over the years to save its steelworks.

Most of the candidates in the left’s primary were government ministers during Hollande’s term. Some of them resigned, accusing the French President of not delivering what he was elected for, but none of them can, like Mélenchon, claim that they had no part in what is widely perceived as a failed presidency.

At this stage, it is difficult to see how Mélenchon could reach the second round of the presidential election, but the incredible dynamic of his campaign is redefining the French left. If on voting day he confirms his lead on the Socialist candidate, the Socialist party risks imploding. At tonight’s debate, Mélenchon will definitely be the elephant in the room.

Philip Kyle is a French and English freelance journalist.