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BEIJING — There is a sharp contrast between Japan and China on how they have handled the incident of North Korean asylum-seekers in Japan’s Shenyang consulate general. While Beijing has taken a low-key approach, Tokyo has blown the whole matter into crisis proportion, creating a nationwide sensation of outrage, anger and militant rhetoric against China — only to end up with yet another foreign policy embarrassment.

Now both governments are prepared to dig in and stick with their own version of what happened. Beijing made clear that the police guards entered the consulate with the consent of Japanese diplomat officials for the sole purpose of taking away the unidentified intruders. But Tokyo released its own investigation result, denying that such consent had been given.

Instead of waiting for the result of the pending investigation and then taking the necessary steps to resolve the dispute, Japan has unilaterally politicized the event.

Japan’s reactions to the incident have been both paradoxical and inconsistent. It is paradoxical in that Tokyo squarely blamed China from the very beginning even before the details about what had happened had been clarified, and before its own fact-finding team had been sent to the site to conduct an investigation. It is inconsistent in that Tokyo’s explanation about the event has been modified a number of times, and the Koizumi Cabinet chose to escalate its demands toward Beijing for its alleged violations of international norms.

On the evening of the incident, Koizumi said there was the Japanese side of the story and there was the Chinese side of the story so the matter should be dealt with in a calm and cautious manner. But the subsequent development showed anything but calm and caution.

Koizumi changed his attitude overnight. He raised the level of rhetoric by calling on the Chinese leadership to respond “sincerely,” claiming that he would take a “resolute stand” (“kizen”) in dealing with China. The Japanese government, which originally requested that Beijing hand over the five North Korean nationals, now demanded an apology and a guarantee that such an incident would not happen again.

At the same time, the entire Japanese political establishment was mobilized to denounce China’s violation of international law and human rights. Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi warned that Beijing must apologize or face severe consequences in Sino-Japanese relations and that Tokyo would re-evaluate China’s human rights record. Rightwing politicians used phrases such as “invasion,” “forced entry,” “violation of Japanese sovereignty,” etc., to describe the actions taken by the Chinese police. Some went further to liken this to a “kidnapping,” and “invasion of Japanese territory.” Others used this event as proof that Japan must speed up its legislative process of passing emergency bills in the Diet. Yet others declared that Koizumi’s kizen approach should also pressure China to punish the armed police involved, to stop guarding the Chinese Embassy in Tokyo and to terminate official development assistance to China.

Why has the Japanese government hyped up this incident even though Beijing has remained low key? With the drama still unfolding, more information will doubtlessly come to light. But the following factors are likely at play:

First, Koizumi chose to overreact to avoid looking bad. When the videos showing Japanese consulate officials helping the Chinese police take the struggling mother and her 3-year-old crying daughter out of the compound played repeatedly on TV networks, they not only presented a negative image of China but also generated resentment in the Japanese public toward the Japanese consulate officials’ handling of the event.

Obviously trying to fence off another loss of public confidence like he faced after sacking Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka early this year, Koizumi came out in full swing — giving directions to Kawaguchi to place additional demands upon China and tossing the “kizen” sound-bite to the media. All this was aimed at creating an image of Japan taking a firm stand against Beijing.

Second, Koizumi intended to score foreign policy gains in Japan’s relations with China and South Korea by playing diplomatic hardball. Japan’s ties with the two counties have been strained by the prime minister’s recent visit to Yasukuni Shrine. Both Chinese and South Korean leaders have openly questioned Koizumi’s sincerity over the war apologies he offered. This incident seemed to provide a good chance for Koizumi to hit back from the high ground of respecting international law and human rights, thus putting Beijing on the defensive while simultaneously pleasing Seoul. Call it killing two birds with one stone.

Third, by drumming up the Chinese violation of Japan’s diplomatic mission to crisis proportion and by arousing ultranationalist sentiment, the Koizumi government is trying to shift the focus of attention from domestic politics to external affairs. Recently, large-scale scandals have forced a number of heavyweight LDP politicians to resign from the Diet, and Koizumi has been unable to deliver the promised reforms. This dispute has been made into a new round of “patriot games” (the last round was the large team of politicians who followed Koizumi to Yasukuni last month). That is why politicians hiding from public scrutiny for their own possible scandals a week ago are now coming out to demonize China.

By now, it is clear that Koizumi’s handling of the incident is playing out as another instance of poor judgment. The latest polls show more than 80 percent of the Japanese public does not think his government has properly handled the incident.

In addition, harm has been done to Japan’s relations with both China and South Korea. The Chinese government is unlikely to apologize to Japan. South Korea’s media has been very critical of Japan from the very beginning, providing on-site evidence that Japanese consulate officials cooperated with the Chinese consulate guards. And the nationalistic sentiment that was stirred up by Japanese politicians and the country’s noncritical media will likely not last long as issues of corruption and badly needed domestic reforms soon return to haunt Koizumi.

As the old saying goes, those who shout the loudest may not necessarily have justice on their side. To avoid further damaging already strained Sino-Japanese ties, Tokyo should cool down, lower the level of its rhetoric, drop its unrealistic demands and pursue a soft approach rather than a “resolute” one in negotiating a compromise solution with Beijing.

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