• by Ding Dou
  • Special to The Japan Times


BEIJING — Although the furor raised by the two-week dispute over the Shenyang incident has died down, it has not entirely dissipated — particularly in Japan. The incident highlighted Japan’s sensitivity toward China’s growing power, and demonstrated that if frictions in this area are not effectively managed, they could eventually cause serious damage to bilateral relations.

The media and government on each side reacted very differently to the incident. Japan’s reaction was fast and fierce, with every major newspaper and television station headlining the story, and almost all prominent political leaders wading in with public statements venting their fury, complaining about China’s alleged violation of the Vienna convention and of Japanese sovereignty, and even going as far as to demand a formal apology from Beijing. This did not go over well with Chinese officials, who still strongly resent Japan’s past aggressions.

Japan’s reaction to the consulate incident was nervous and overly sensitive. Japan appears to have lost its confidence in the face of China’s growing power and its own faltering economic performance over the past decade. Many Japanese speak of the economic threat posed by China, warn of China’s military power and view many Chinese developments with a wary eye. In a bid to counterbalance China’s burgeoning influence, Japan has striven to become a political power, but it still has a long way to go in achieving this goal.

Coupled with the setbacks of “structural reform” in Japan and repeated Chinese criticism of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine and the official passage of new history textbook, Japan’s basic posture toward China appears to be almost repressive. When Japanese politicians give vent to their frustrations with China, Japanese politics tends to become overly excited and the risk of overreacting to events increases.

In contrast, the Chinese reaction to the incident was calm and measured. News of the Shenyang incident attracted far less public attention in China than it did in Japan, occupying only a small space in the long list of media headlines.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan gave official comments on the incident. The director of the Chinese State Information Office, Zhao Qizheng, who at the time of the incident was attending a meeting in Japan, also made a few remarks and participated in discussions over the dispute. Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan made only one public reference to the incident. Vice Premier Qian Qichen mentioned it in a meeting with a visiting team of Japanese veteran reporters in Beijing, saying China and Japan had resolved bigger problems in the past and characterizing the Shenyang incident as a minor issue that did not require the consultations of top leaders on either side. None of the top Chinese leaders, including President Jiang Zemin and Premier Zhu Rongji, referred to the incident in public.

China’s measured response to the dispute underlined its confidence in its stance. While the Chinese viewed the Shenyang incident as only one story among many, for the Japanese it eclipsed all others.

China’s rise and Japan’s decline — the biggest event in East Asia over the past decade — has strained the geopolitical relationship between the two neighbors. Since Koizumi took office last year, ties between the two countries have been characterized by tit-for-tat confrontations. In recent months, China and Japan have each been publicly vying for leadership in East Asia. For example, each country has been trying to persuade ASEAN countries to establish a free-trade zone with it. The Shenyang incident epitomizes this strategically strained relationship.

The failure of Japan’s diplomatic demands in the Shenyang incident, including an official apology from Beijing, could end up strengthening Japan’s more radical political elements and lead Tokyo to assume a more hardline approach toward China.

Signs of this already exist. The planned visit of Japan’s Crown Prince Naruhito and Princess Masako to China this fall to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the normalization of bilateral relations has been postponed to next year or beyond. And just days ago, some of Koizumi’s Cabinet members advocated modifying the country’s three long-standing nonnuclear principles.

Japanese politicians who see the rise of China as a threat to Japan will remain sensitive to any diplomatic discrepancies between the two countries and may even attempt to use such incidents as opportunities to arouse national pride.

On the Chinese side, some people are becoming more wary of attempts to revive Japan as a military power. Even before the Shenyang incident took place, the biggest Internet provider in China aired a public debate on the possibility of a future Sino-Japanese war. A majority of the thousands who participated felt the possibility of future conflict was strong.

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