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Shenyang, in northeast China, is a city of historical significance for both Japan and China. Formerly known as Mukden, it was the last battlefield in the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War. Imperial Japan, emerging as a modern power after the Meiji Restoration, won a do-or-die war with imperial Russia, which had sought hegemony in East Asia.

As the Ching Dynasty was in decline, many Chinese youths studied in Japan at the time to learn something from a newly rising power. People in Western-ruled Asian countries admired Japan as the only Oriental nation to have defeated a Western power. Arrogant and overconfident, Japan emulated 19th-century Western policies of imperialism and colonialism and expanded its military rule to China and other countries.

In 1931, the Manchurian Incident broke out when a group of Japanese Imperial Army officers stationed in northeast China engineered a bomb explosion on a railway at Liutaochu, near Mukden. The Japanese held the Chinese Army responsible for the blast and used it as a pretext for attacking Chinese Army barracks. The incident eventually led to Japanese Imperial rule over China.

Shigeru Yoshida, who ruled Japan as prime minister in the immediate postwar years, served as a novice diplomat at the Japanese Consulate General in Mukden during the last years of the Ching Dynasty.

On May 8, the consulate general in Shenyang was the site of an incident that sparked a diplomatic row between Japan and China. The spat started when five North Korean asylum seekers were removed by Chinese police from the grounds of the mission. The five were eventually granted asylum in South Korea, where they were flown by way of the Philippines.

With Japan still demanding an apology, however, the dispute remains unsettled. Japan says its national sovereignty was violated when Chinese police entered the mission grounds without permission to seize the asylum seekers. China says the Japanese vice consul gave permission for the Chinese police action and even expressed gratitude for it.

Media reports on the incident make it obvious that Japan lost to China in the squabble. Japanese diplomats were incapable of dealing with the trouble. They were insensitive to issues involving human rights and national sovereignty, which are sometimes contradictory concepts.

Although China’s position in the dispute is on shaky ground, Beijing gained the upper hand in the row when television footage showed Japanese consular officials doing little to prevent the North Koreans from being taken away.

Beijing was also emboldened by disclosures that consular officials had turned over to the Chinese police an English-language letter from the asylum seekers, and that the Japanese ambassador had told his staff earlier to turn away all suspicious people. Shrewd Chinese diplomats shifted the responsibility for the incident to Japan, taking advantage of its inept handling of the affair. Japan, with its makeshift measures, was no match for China.

For a long time, Japan has rarely granted political asylum and has effectively refused to accept refugees. Most Japanese, because of their insular narrow-mindedness, prefer it that way.

In postwar Japan, people have tended to avoid debate about their nation and national sovereignty. Japan has always been apologetic toward China in bilateral relations. Thus it was hardly surprising that consular officials, who were educated in the postwar period, failed to take resolute action in the Shenyang incident. They had received no training, and had no manuals, for managing crises and for dealing with asylum seekers.

Results of the recent French presidential election signaled the declining power of socialist parties and a rise in rightist influences in Europe. In the changing political landscape, national sovereignty and national interests are often overemphasized. Many pundits say moves toward globalization have peaked.

There has been increasing criticism of U.S.-style economic globalization, and the antiglobalization movement is growing in different nations, regions and among various industries and social strata. This trend is becoming more apparent regarding national security and political identity.

In the post-9/11 environment of international cooperation to fight terrorism, the U.S. is becoming more inward-looking and unilateralist. Russia and China, seeking to restrain U.S. influence and vice versa, are trying to secure a foothold in the new global order.

Under these circumstances, Japan must establish a diplomatic policy based on national interests. Thorough debate should be held on national sovereignty and human rights as they relate to national interests. By developing better diplomatic strategies, the government should deal with other powers with confidence, courage and speed. I hope the Shenyang incident will serve as a catalyst to develop such strategies.

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