September 26, 2012

The clash of national prides in the East China Sea

Over the last four years, two significant articles have been published in the Russian media. The first one appeared in April 2008, predicting the Russian-Georgian war; the second one came out this June, announcing President Putin’s order to start preparations for military operations outside Russian borders. The two articles share a number of similarities, but also diverge on some points.

Over the last four years, two significant articles have been published in the Russian media. The first one appeared in April 2008, predicting the Russian-Georgian war; the second one came out this June, announcing President Putin’s order to start preparations for military operations outside Russian borders. The two articles share a number of similarities, but also diverge on some points.

There is more at stake than just Senkaku/Diaoyu. Everyone knows that countries involved in the South China Sea dispute (Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei) are watching. The outcome of the current dispute will inevitably show the world how far China is willing to go to defend its claims. This is why no party can afford to back down in the current stand-off. It would mean a massive loss of face with a potential for political upheaval. The escalation of the situation into military conflict by design is unlikely as both sides in the conflict understand the dire consequences, both economic and political. Trade of almost 1 billion dollars per day between China and Japan is a cornerstone of not only a regional economy, but also an important element of the global economic interaction. How would the US react when its close Security Treaty ally Japan was actually attacked? US bases in Okinawa and further afield might be dragged into the conflict. The Asia-Pacific century, as some in the US like to call the 21 century, might get off to a terrible start. Despite the rhetoric, both China and Japans have refrained from sending in their navies, limiting their presence to fishing boats, coast guard ships and patrol vessels. The main concern, however, must be the escalation by accident such as a collision and sinking of protest vessels, fighting between the activists etc.

In China where the government has never been elected by the people, the legitimacy of the ruling CPC rests to a large extent on providing the population with economic development and economic opportunity. With the economy slowing there is an increased risk of basing legitimacy on nationalist sentiments. Anti-Japanese protests reported in more than 100 cities across China demonstrate that nationalism is on the rise. Its manifestations can be extremely irrational as Toyotas, Hondas and Nissans being burnt and smashed have all been built in China by the Chinese and they belong to the Chinese owners. The purchase of the disputed islands by the Japanese government from their private owners shows that a domestic pre-election competition for the position of a defender of national interest is in full swing. As share prices in many Japanese companies exposed to China are dropping, the consequences are already felt.

A meeting today in New York between the foreign ministers of China and Japan produced no breakthrough in the question. When establishing diplomatic relations in 1972 Deng Xiaoping is quoted as saying: “Our generation is not wise enough to find common language on this question. Our next generation will certainly be wiser. They will certainly find a solution acceptable to all.” Deng was certainly not right about the timing of the solution. Nevertheless, his idea about shelving the issue for the time being might be as relevant today as it was 40 years ago.

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