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
FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Under pressure at home, Donald Trump will struggle to deliver what Saudi Arabia wants

Above all, the Gulf states want stability. Can this beleaguered US president bring order?

There is a nervous energy around Riyadh. Fresh palm trees line the roads from the airport, punctuated by a wall of American flags and corporate slogans: “Together we prevail.” All the street lights are suddenly working.

The visit of any American president is always a lavish affair in Saudi Arabia, but there is an optimism to this visit that evaded the Obama years and even the recent visits of Theresa May and Angela Merkel.

Yet, there are two distinct parts to this trip – Trump’s first overseas engagement as president – that will determine its success. The first is relatively straightforward. Trump will sign huge defence contracts worth billions of dollars and offer trading opportunities that allow him to maintain his narrative of economic renewal for American businesses.

For the Saudis, too, these deals will fit into their ambitious project – known as Vision 2030 – to expand and diversify their economy away from its current dependence on oil revenues. Both parties are comfortable with this type of corporate and transactional government, enjoying the gaudy pomp and ceremony that comes with the signing of newly minted deals.

The more complicated aspects of the trip relate to its political dimensions. As the Middle East continues to convulse under the most significant turmoil to envelope it since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, what Gulf leaders desperately want is the re-establishment of order. At its core, that is what will define Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia – and the Saudis are optimistic.

Their buoyancy is borne of shared regional interests, not least curbing Iranian influence. Ever since the Arab uprisings in 2011, Tehran has asserted itself across the Levant by organising hundreds of proxies to fight on its behalf in Syria and Iraq. Closer to home, too, the Gulf states accuse Iran of fomenting unrest within Shia communities in Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces, in Bahrain, and in Yemen.

All of this has left the House of Saud feeling especially vulnerable. Having enjoyed an American security umbrella since the 1970s, Obama’s pursuit of the Iran deal left them feeling particularly exposed.

In part at least, this explains some of the Kingdom’s more frantic actions at home and abroad – including the execution of prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, and the war in Yemen. Both are really about posturing to Iran: projecting power and demonstrating Saudi resolve.

Trump shares these concerns over Iranian influence, is prepared to look the other way on Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and is deeply opposed to Obama’s nuclear deal. Riyadh believes he will restore the status quo and is encouraged by the direction of travel.

Just last month Trump commissioned a review of the Iran deal while the US Treasury imposed sanctions on two Iranian officials. Saudi Arabia also welcomed Trump’s decision to launch cruise missiles against a Syrian military base last month after Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons in the town of Khan Sheikhoun.

These measures have been largely tokenistic, but their broader impact has been very significant. The Saudis, and their Gulf partners more generally, feel greatly reassured. This is an American presence in the region that is aligned to their interests, that they know well and can manage.

That is why Gulf states have rushed to embrace the new president ever since he first entered the Oval Office. Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (colloquially known simply as “MBS”), already visited him in Washington earlier this year. The Emiratis and others followed shortly afterwards.

A spokesman for Mohammed bin Salman later described the meeting with Trump as an “historical turning point” in relations between the two countries. A White House readout of the meeting baldly stated: “The President and the deputy crown prince noted the importance of confronting Iran's destabilising regional activities.”

Now that Trump is visiting them, the Saudis are hoping to broker an even broader series of engagements between the current administration and the Islamic world. To that end, they are bringing 24 different Muslim leaders to Saudi Arabia for this visit.

This is where Trump’s visit is likely to be fraught because he plans to deliver a major speech about Islam during his visit – a move that has seemingly no positives associated with it.

There is a lot of interest (and bemusement) from ordinary Saudis about what Trump will actually say. Most are willing to look beyond his divisive campaign rhetoric – he did, after all, declare “I think Islam hates us” – and listen to him in Riyadh. But what can he say?

Either he will indulge his audience by describing Islam as a great civilisation, thereby angering much of his political base; or he will stick to the deeply hostile rhetoric of his campaign.

There is, of course, room for an informed, careful, and nuanced speech to be made on the topic, but these are not adjectives commonly associated with Donald Trump. Indeed, the pressure is on.

He will be on the road for nine days at a time when pressure is building over the sacking of the former FBI director James Comey and the ongoing investigation into former national security advisor Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russia.

It is already being reported that Trump is not entirely enthusiastic about such a long overseas programme, but he is committed now. As with almost everything concerning his presidency, this extra pressure adds a wild air of unpredictability to what could happen.

Away from the lucrative deals and glad-handing, this will be the real standard by which to measure the success of Trump’s visit. For a relationship principally defined by its pursuit of stability, whether Trump can deliver what the Gulf really wants remains to be seen.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

0800 7318496