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Who is Using The Japan Card in China?

Someone is using the Japan Card in China to keep up the tensions between the two countries over the recent incident in the East China Sea involving the capture and subsequent release of the crew of a Chinese fishing trawler by the Japanese Coast Guard. The trawler was intercepted by the Japanese Coast Guard because it had allegedly intruded into Japanese territorial waters around the Senkaku group of Islands. The Chinese reject Japanese claims of sovereignty over the group and claim it as their own. They have been demanding an official apology by Japan and payment of compensation for the allegedly wrongful action of the Japanese Coast Guard. Tokyo has firmly rejected this demand.

2. Despite the continuing differences over the legality of the action of the Japanese Coast Guard and over Tokyo’s refusal to apologise and pay compensation, there  were indications of an attempt to cool the tensions while maintaining their respective stand on the islands. Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, who reportedly refused to meet his Japanese counterpart Naoto Kan in September when the two were in New York to attend the UN General Assembly session, subsequently met him briefly in the margins of the Asia-Europe summit in Brussels in the first week of October. This was followed by a meeting between the Japanese Defence Minister Toshimi Kitazawa and his Chinese counterpart Liang Guanglie on October 11 in Hanoi where they had gone to attend a meeting of the Defence Ministers of ASEAN Plus Dialogue Partners hosted by Vietnam.It was reported by the media after the meeting that the two had agreed to set up a liaison system to try to avert future maritime confrontations.

3. There was a positive assessment of the meeting from Tokyo. Yoshito Sengoku, a Japanese Government spokesman, said in Tokyo on October 12: “Continued positive developments are creating an environment to pave the way for a bilateral summit.  Prime Minister Naoto Kan and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, who met informally in Brussels last week, could hold an official summit at a meeting with Southeast Asian leaders this month.” It was reported subsequently that a team of Japanese officials would be going to Beijing to prepare the ground for the summit.

4. When the tensions thus started showing signs of beginning to subside, there was a sudden flare-up of orchestrated (through the Internet and the People’s Forum of the People’s Daily) anti-Japanese emotions in some cities of China in the form of public demonstrations against Japan and the Japanese. These demonstrations followed an anti-China demonstration in Tokyo on October 16 believed to have been organised by conservative militarists.

5. Following the anti-China demonstrations in Tokyo, SMS and Internet messages flashed across China calling for demonstrations against the Japanese. Anti-Japanese demonstrations during which there were attacks on the properties of Japanese companies have been reported so far from Chengdu, Xian, Zhengzhou and Wuhan. The fresh tensions have been exacerbated by Chinese perceptions of  a new anti-China assertiveness in Japan. In this connection, Chinese analysts have drawn attention to what they regard as the anti-China statements of the Japanese Foreign Minister, Seiji Maehara, who has been projected in the People’s Forum columns of the “People’s Daily ” as a China hawk, “who  has  been known to warn against China’s increased military presence in the region, saying in a 2005 speech to fellow members of parliament that “We can control (China’s) expansion in its force only if we act firmly and resolutely.” He has called China “a threat,” saying that the country has developed missiles capable of reaching Japan and conducted maritime surveys around the Japanese waters. He has also said that deciding whether to establish friendly relations with China would be “Japan’s major diplomatic test.”

6. The Chinese have also been angered by a reported speech of Japan’s conservative former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at Washington DC last week in which he accused China of following a modern-day policy of “lebensraum” with its growing assertiveness over disputed territories. He accused China of trying to expand its strategic frontier.  He has been quoted by the media as having stated as follows in Washington DC: “This very dangerous idea (Lebensraum) posits that borders and exclusive economic zones are determined by national power, and that as long as China’s economy continues to grow, its sphere of influence will continue to expand. Some might associate this with the German concept of ‘lebensraum.’

7. Intriguingly, the demonstrations and the orchestrated campaign against Japan have coincided with the plenary session of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee, which was held in Beijing from October15 to 18. The Chinese authorities themselves seem to have been taken by surprise by the virulence of the anti-Japan campaign and demonstrations.

8. Were the campaign and demonstrations provoked by the anti-reformists to oppose demands for a faster pace of reforms by pointing out that at a time when  the Japanese ill-will and threat to China seems to be increasing it will be unwise to loosen political controls? A search for an answer to this question needs attention.

(Courtesy: South Asia Analysis Group. The writerMr B Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd), Cebinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. E-mail:

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