China and Japan: a conflict of logics

The territorial dispute between regional powers has the potential to escalate. All the more reason for the Chinese elite to lead rather than follow public opinion, says Kerry Brown.

Kerry Brown
30 August 2012

The Chinese academic Zheng Wang has just published a book on historical memory and its role in China’s politics and foreign affairs: Never Forget National Humiliation (Columbia University Press, 2012). In it he writes that many outsiders have a “lack of understanding of the inner life of Chinese people.” The government in Beijing may act as a mouthpiece for mainstream elite views; but what Chinese people themselves really think about current issues remains beyond the grasp of foreign observers - even now, when social media has swamped both sides.

The spat that erupted in August 2012 between Japan and China over contested islets in the South China Seas (Senkaku / Diaoyu in the respective languages) might appear a perfect chance to remedy this situation - by seeing what blogs, internet postings and other new forums convey to non-Chinese about Chinese people’s views on a sensitive national controversy. Even more so since, in relation to foreign affairs, Chinese people have some latitude to speak without agents of state “contaminating” their opinions with surveillance, official recriminations and distorting censorship.

But here too, it is advisable to bear Zheng Wang’s caution in mind. The online sources contain a cacophony of opinion about Japan’s “insults” (the vogue word) to China’s territorial rights and national honour, and they are supplemented by equally angry demonstrations in Beijing and across the country against Japan (with targets from shops, businesses and cultural entities to Tokyo’s diplomatic representatives). It is hard, though, to discern the “inner life of Chinese people” beneath the wealth of denunciation. In many ways, it can seem that Chinese public opinion in the social-media era has become more, not less, unknowable.

A diplomatic chasm

This matters because of the way that the Chinese government understands and seeks to support its national claims by reference to history and emotion. The contrast with the way Japan approaches the territorial dispute with China (one of several both countries are involved in with their neighbours) is clear. A senior official from Japan told me in July 2012 - before the latest escalation - that Japan understood well how it had to deal with China (which was shared by the rest of the world). You have a simple choice, the official said in effect: either you give credence to China and its history-based claims, and thus have to deal with all the matters arising (for example, what predecessor states existed before the current ones, how obligations and rights flow from one to the other, and where historic lines should be drawn); or you conduct your diplomatic practice according to international law, basing everything on a recognition of the realities of legal title and ownership,

The Japanese official implied that by China’s logic, England’s medieval ownership of lands in northern France could entitle the United Kingdom to make a valid territorial claim today - and that by any other logic, Japan was right in the dispute with China. The Japanese position, thus expressed, is at heart a straightforward play-off between an emotional pre-modern territoriality (China) and rational modernity (Japan). As for the rest of the world, it should align its policy with its rhetoric, acknowledge that the Japanese stance was correct, then keep out.

China, for its part, could with more dextrous diplomacy advance its case over Diaoyu / Senkaku more persuasively to the outside world, while stirring a little less rancour (assuming these are among its wishes). A range of options are available under international law, which is after all an evolving body of work, including possible compromise short of a final settlement. In view of the latent resource-conflicts in the disputed areas, most would want to see such an outcome in the short-to-medium term. Deng Xiaoping’s advice over Taiwan in the 1980s remains apposite: the big issues about sovereignty can be kicked deep into the future, but the main thing now is to find a flexible way of working together which does not prejudge anything.

Today, China’s leaders lack such pragmatism in comparable areas, and are prepared to allow hardline public expression to fuel their stance (though how far the elite knows what is in its citizens' minds is worth asking). This approach has its own costs. China’s power is increasing, its voice in Europe and America is becoming more influential, its contribution to solving geopolitical problems is ever more needed; amid such responsibilities, nasty rows with the neighbours strike a discordant note.

China could in principle choose to take a longer-term view, go for an interim solution to territorial spats, preserve good relations with its neighbours, and continue the very successful economic path of recent decades. After all, it surely sees that the main beneficiaries of the current abrasive situation are the “China threat” peddlers - and those who would depict its policy as driven by emotion.

A local-global problem

It is hard to see Japan backing down on the Diaoyu / Senkaku affair. Whether the nationalist governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, raises the money to buy them - his suggestion being the immediate cause of the latest row - or whether the Japanese government does so, Japanese ownership of them is not going to change. The policy of the Japanese authorities is to apprehend whoever comes towards the islands, and send them home. So far, the country’s Self Defence Forces have not been called on. But if they do get involved, then the most worrying of all outcomes begins to look possible - a military escalation between two countries with bitter and media-stoked memories of conflict.

The changes due within Japan and China in the next few months are the great variables here - China’s leadership transition, which could either calm or amplify the voice of the nationalists and military, and the prospect of Japan’s embattled prime minister Yoshihiko Noda (or his rivals) using a controversy like this for domestic purposes (possibly in an early election).

In this fluid period, it must be hoped that level heads and measured responses will prevail. But where China is concerned, the country is no longer a struggling, impoverished local player but a powerful global actor. In matters of rocks as well as trade and currency and the environment, it needs to start acting like one - even when this requires leading rather than indulging “public opinion”. When it really matters for the common good, after all, a government can change public opinion. And on this matter, emotion or no emotion, the Chinese government really must.

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