HONG KONG — It is the stuff of drama. Chinese policemen grabbed three North Koreans — two women and a toddler — who were trying to seek asylum in the Japanese Consulate General in Shenyang in northeastern China last Wednesday, but not before the two men with them succeeded in reaching the diplomatic section. To the surprise of the North Koreans and Japanese diplomats, the Chinese policemen, without seeking permission, entered the consular premises and dragged away the two men.

The Chinese action ostensibly is a violation of international law, with the potential of precipitating a fresh crisis in Sino-Japanese relations, already strained by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s visit last month to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine.

Japan protested, citing the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which stipulates: “The premises of the [diplomatic] mission shall be inviolable. The agents of the receiving state may not enter them, except with the consent of the head of the mission.” China, however, cites the same convention, which provides that “the receiving state” has “a special duty . . . to protect the premises of the mission against any intrusion.”

The North Koreans can arguably be considered intruders. China, therefore, can say that its police were performing their duty in attempting to prevent the North Koreans from entering the Japanese consulate. However, after the two North Koreans entered the consulate, the Chinese police became intruders themselves when they followed them in without Japanese permission.

The Shenyang incident aggravates a relationship already under considerable strain. Only the previous week, Chinese President Jiang Zemin had told visiting New Komeito party leader Takenori Kanzaki that Koizumi’s April 21 visit to Yasukuni — the memorial to the nation’s war dead, including 14 Class-A war criminals — was “totally unacceptable.”

The shrine visit came as a surprise to China, which thought that Koizumi, who had apologized last year for Japan’s wartime aggression against China after making a similar visit to the shrine, would no longer make such visits.

Last year, China postponed an official visit to Japan by Li Peng, chairman of the National People’s Congress, because of disputes over Japanese textbooks. After the most recent visit, Beijing postponed a trip to China by Defense Agency Director General Gen Nakatani and a port visit to Japan by the Chinese Navy.

Both Japan and China are eager to avoid a rupture in their relationship. The Shenyang events unfolded while a 5,000-member Chinese tourism delegation was in Japan to mark September’s 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between the two countries. A tourism delegation of 10,000 Japanese is scheduled to go to China this fall.

Both countries clearly want to maintain good relations and limit damage from untoward developments. China allowed a visit to Japan by Zeng Qinghong, a senior official, to go ahead despite the second Yasukuni visit. Koizumi personally asked the Chinese ambassador to make efforts to resolve the dispute over the North Koreans.

It does appear that crises often erupt to destabilize a relationship that is important to both countries. The frequency reflects the delicacy of the relationship. Aside from conflicts over history books and the Yasukuni visits, other issues are confronting the two Asian neighbors.

For one thing, many Japanese are apprehensive of China’s emergence as a major power as well as its surging economy, which has caused Japanese companies to shift their production facilities to China to take advantage of cheaper land and labor, precipitating fears of a hollowing out of Japanese industry.

China, for its part, is worried about Japan’s new military assertiveness. Japan is conducting research with the United States on the feasibility of a missile defense system for East Asia. Beijing fears that such a system may be used to shield Taiwan from Chinese missiles. Moreover, Japan is considering legislation on how it should respond to attacks or perceived threats of attack, and a Japanese politician warned recently that Japan could produce nuclear weapons in the event of Chinese expansionism.

What is perhaps more difficult to manage than the utterances of politicians is a feeling of distrust on the part of ordinary people in the two countries. Many Chinese have neither forgiven nor forgotten Japan’s aggression of earlier years, and a rise in nationalism has been accompanied by occasionally overt anti-Japanese sentiment. In Japan, too, there has been a rise in antipathy toward China, spurred by a rise in crimes perpetrated by Chinese living in Japan.

The intrusion into the Japanese consulate is merely the latest crisis that will no doubt be resolved or papered over by the two countries. But a much harder task facing the two governments is how to cope with their own people and the risks posed by the rising antipathy that each has toward the other.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.