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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Qatar is determined to stand up to its Gulf neighbours – but at what price?

The tensions date back to the maverick rule of Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.

For much of the two decades plus since Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani deposed his father to become emir of Qatar, the tiny gas-rich emirate’s foreign policy has been built around two guiding principles: differentiating itself from its Gulf neighbours, particularly the regional Arab hegemon Saudi Arabia, and insulating itself from Saudi influence. Over the past two months, Hamad’s strategy has been put to the test. From a Qatari perspective it has paid off. But at what cost?

When Hamad became emir in 1995, he instantly ruffled feathers. He walked out of a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) because, he believed, Saudi Arabia had jumped the queue to take on the council’s rotating presidency. Hamad also spurned the offer of mediation from the then-President of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan. This further angered his neighbours, who began making public overtures towards Khalifa, the deposed emir, who was soon in Abu Dhabi and promising a swift return to power in Doha. In 1996, Hamad accused Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE of sponsoring a coup attempt against Hamad, bringing GCC relations to a then-all-time low.

Read more: How to end the stand off in the Gulf

The spat was ultimately resolved, as were a series of border and territory disputes between Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, but mistrust of Hamad - and vice versa - has lingered ever since. As crown prince, Hamad and his key ally Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani had pushed for Qatar to throw off what they saw as the yoke of Saudi dominance in the Gulf, in part by developing the country’s huge gas reserves and exporting liquefied gas on ships, rather than through pipelines that ran through neighbouring states. Doing so freed Qatar from the influence of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, the Saudi-dominated oil cartel which sets oil output levels and tries to set oil market prices, but does not have a say on gas production. It also helped the country avoid entering into a mooted GCC-wide gas network that would have seen its neighbours control transport links or dictate the – likely low - price for its main natural resource.

Qatar has since become the richest per-capita country in the world. Hamad invested the windfall in soft power, building the Al Jazeera media network and spending freely in developing and conflict-afflicted countries. By developing its gas resources in joint venture with Western firms including the US’s Exxon Mobil and France’s Total, it has created important relationships with senior officials in those countries. Its decision to house a major US military base – the Al Udeid facility is the largest American base in the Middle East, and is crucial to US military efforts in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan – Qatar has made itself an important partner to a major Western power. Turkey, a regional ally, has also built a military base in Qatar.

Hamad and Hamad bin Jassem also worked to place themselves as mediators in a range of conflicts in Sudan, Somalia and Yemen and beyond, and as a base for exiled dissidents. They sold Qatar as a promoter of dialogue and tolerance, although there is an open question as to whether this attitude extends to Qatar itself. The country, much like its neighbours, is still an absolute monarchy in which there is little in the way of real free speech or space for dissent. Qatar’s critics, meanwhile, argue that its claims to promote human rights and free speech really boil down to an attempt to empower the Muslim Brotherhood. Doha funded Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups during and after the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, while Al Jazeera cheerleaded protest movements, much to the chagrin of Qatar's neighbours. They see the group as a powerful threat to their dynastic rule and argue that the Brotherhood is a “gateway drug” to jihadism. In 2013,  after Western allies became concerned that Qatar had inadvertently funded jihadist groups in Libya and Syria, Hamad was forced to step down in favour of his son Tamim. Soon, Tamim came under pressure from Qatar’s neighbours to rein in his father’s maverick policies.

Today, Qatar has a high degree of economic independence from its neighbours and powerful friends abroad. Officials in Doha reckon that this should be enough to stave off the advances of the “Quad” of countries – Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE - that have been trying to isolate the emirate since June. They have been doing this by cutting off diplomatic and trade ties, and labelling Qatar a state sponsor of terror groups. For the Quad, the aim is to end what it sees as Qatar’s disruptive presence in the region. For officials in Doha, it is an attempt to impinge on the country’s sovereignty and turn Qatar into a vassal state. So far, the strategies put in place by Hamad to insure Qatar from regional pressure have paid off. But how long can this last?

Qatar’s Western allies are also Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s. Thus far, they have been paralysed by indecision over the standoff, and after failed mediation attempts have decided to leave the task of resolving what they see as a “family affair” to the Emir of Kuwait, Sabah al-Sabah. As long as the Quad limits itself to economic and diplomatic attacks, they are unlikely to pick a side. It is by no means clear they would side with Doha in a pinch (President Trump, in defiance of the US foreign policy establishment, has made his feelings clear on the issue). Although accusations that Qatar sponsors extremists are no more true than similar charges made against Saudi Arabia or Kuwait – sympathetic local populations and lax banking regulations tend to be the major issue – few Western politicians want to be seen backing an ally, that in turn many diplomats see as backing multiple horses.

Meanwhile, although Qatar is a rich country, the standoff is hurting its economy. Reuters reports that there are concerns that the country’s massive $300bn in foreign assets might not be as liquid as many assume. This means that although it has plenty of money abroad, it could face a cash crunch if the crisis rolls on.

Qatar might not like its neighbours, but it can’t simply cut itself off from the Gulf and float on to a new location. At some point, there will need to be a resolution. But with the Quad seemingly happy with the current status quo, and Hamad’s insurance policies paying off, a solution looks some way off.