HONG KONG — Is Beijing deliberately trying to intimidate and humiliate Japan and Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara, or are the Japanese merely collateral damage in China’s wider ambitions to assert the political muscle of its new global economic aspirations?
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s visit to Kunashiri Island, part of the disputed Northern Territories (South Kuril Islands in Russia) was another leaf from Beijing’s playbook in a stronger assertion of itself against a weak and weakening Japan.
It is high time for Japan to reconsider its changing place in the world in the light of the relentless rise of China. Its existing policy, which bears a close resemblance to a studied imitation of an ostrich burying its head in the sand, will no longer suffice.
It was an extraordinary, almost pantomime, performance in Hanoi over the China-Japan summit that never was. A careful schedule had been drawn up for the two prime ministers, Wen Jiabao and Naoto Kan, to talk during the series of meetings between leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and other regional countries. The day before, the two countries’ foreign ministers had met. But a few hours before the scheduled meeting, China scuppered it with an anti-Japan outburst.
To add insult, a mere assistant foreign minister, Hu Zhengyue, delivered the accusations. Hu is not No. 2 (as some Japanese newspapers claimed), but is ranked eighth on the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s list of officials under Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi. He claimed that the potential summit had been “ruined” by Japan’s “groundless distortions”: Japan “want to make the Diaoyu Islands (Senkaku Islands in Japan) a hot-button issue. During the summit it kept spreading speeches that infringe on China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
He did not trot out the stock line about Japan having hurt the feelings of the 1.3 billion Chinese people. Exactly what Maehara or the Japanese may have said that was so upsetting has not been revealed. If it was simply a reassertion of Japan’s claims to sovereignty over the disputed islands, Beijing should not have been surprised or upset. China after all repeated its own claim that the islands “have been an integral part of Chinese territory since ancient times.”
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tried her hand as peacemaker and reiterated the need for peaceful solutions to Asia’s maritime disputes and for freedom of navigation in the region. Kan and Wen did manage a few words when they were with other leaders in a waiting room before one of the formal sessions. According to the Japanese spokesman, they agreed that it was a pity that their summit was canceled. So was Wen kept out of Beijing’s loop?
Bad blood remains. American efforts at peacemaking were spurned by Beijing, perhaps because Washington has said that the Senkakus are covered by the Japan-U.S. security treaty. The Global Times, supposedly China’s friendly international face, squarely blamed the “hawkish” Maehara for the canceled summit. In an editorial the paper criticized Maehara as a “political extremist wholesaling his strong rhetoric” at the meetings in Hanoi. It added that Kan “has chosen the wrong guy to represent Japan in international relations.”
It is of little comfort to Tokyo that it is not alone in feeling the rough elbows of China’s new ambitions. Beijing has clearly decided that the world is its oyster, and its growing confidence matched with a need for resources to fuel its great economic growth has led it to throw away Deng Xiaoping’s dictum to “hide brightness, cherish obscurity.”
Of immediate concern is China’s decision to include the South China Sea as a “core national interest,” an expression that hitherto embraced only Taiwan and Tibet. Given that Japan, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam all have overlapping territorial claims in the ocean, this is a challenge to all of China’s neighbors.
Vietnam has already seen China’s scowling ambitious face and its double standards in the seizure of Vietnamese fishing vessels along with hundreds of fishermen in a number of incidents in the disputed waters around the Paracels. China’s rough treatment of the Vietnamese is in stark contrast to its demands to Tokyo when Japan seized a single Chinese trawler.
The particular situation off the Senkaku Islands is fraught with danger, not least because the islands are uninhabited. There is an English proverb that possession is nine tenths of the law, which may be what Medvedev was underscoring during his visit to Kunashiri Island. Expect Beijing to increase its fishing and naval patrols in the area, with attendant risks of new incidents.
Already a choir of commentators is singing complaints about Beijing showing off its adolescent muscles. Singapore’s former ambassador and leading academic Kishore Mahbubani wrote that “China’s decision to browbeat the Japanese into submission over the fishing trawler suggests that China may be throwing Deng’s geopolitical caution out the window” with the risk of fostering an anti-Beijing coalition, including Russia and India as well as the United States.
Lee Kuan Yew, the founding prime minister of Singapore, who is also close to China, called recently for “a balance in the Pacific.” Japan cannot balance China on its own, he claimed, and India is too far away and does not have the capacity to deploy forces into the Pacific. That leaves the U.S. as Japan’s essential ally.
Other commentators suggest a wider alliance would be better, involving Vietnam and Southeast Asian countries, Korea, India and possibly Russia. The future of Asia is too important to be left to China and the U.S. Although the talk of a Group of Two of China and the U.S. quickly faded almost as soon as it was suggested in the heady aftermath of new President Barack Obama’s overtures to Beijing, there is still deep suspicion of America in Asia.
Beijing is already suspicious of other countries ganging up against it. The People’s Daily, the Communist Party newspaper, has already questioned India’s policy, asking “Does India’s ‘Look East’ policy mean ‘Look to encircle China’ ?”
The challenge from a resurgent China goes much further and wider than the islands of the South China Sea, however important their ownership may be for their resources or as symbolic of the balance of power.
Elizabeth Economy, in an important article in Foreign Affairs claims that “Beijing has launched a strategy designed to remake global norms and institutions. China is transforming the world as it transforms itself. Never mind notions of a responsible stakeholder; China has become a revolutionary power.”
Japan has to wake up. This means more than just seeking the help of Washington and other countries over the Senkakus. It means being alive and active and offering support to other countries when Japan’s immediate interests may not be obviously at stake.
It means promoting freedom in a wide sense, including freedom of the seas, space, the Internet, the rule of law, basic human rights.
It may mean difficult choices, such as how far to trust Russia when it is occupying disputed territories. How could Japan’s diplomats have been so poorly informed about Medvedev’s visit when he sat with Kan in Hanoi. They will be together in Seoul this week, and then Kan will be his host in Yokohama at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. Was Japan’s Foreign Ministry sleeping or just being taken for granted?
It will also mean waking the moribund Japanese economy, so that the country has the resources and the international understanding to play a proper part in promoting and protecting a world vision and global standards from which Japan has benefited immensely.
Kevin Rafferty, formerly in charge of the Financial Times’ coverage of Asia, is editor in chief of PlainWords Media.