The row between Japan and China over the Senkaku Islands is, on the surface, a territorial issue. The root of the rift, however, is much deeper and wider.

In the Japanese view, the incident that developed into a serious political issue between the two countries originated in the violent action of a Chinese fishing boat that not only violated the territorial waters of Japan but ignored warnings and, furthermore, struck a Japan Coast Guard ship.

While the Japanese side has tried to deal with the matter within a legal framework, the Chinese side seems to regard the incident not as a matter of legal procedures but as a political provocation on the Japanese side.

The more Japan insists on the importance of containing the issue within legal procedures, thereby trying to minimize political embarrassment, the more irritated China becomes and the more it resorts to political retaliation.

In a sense, it is understandable that national sentiment in China has been stirred up as the issue is related to territorial claims over the Senkaku Islands.

It is also understandable that Chinese reactions have been quite severe as the incident involves the fishing operations of Chinese fishermen, who are quite sensitive to territorial claims involving fishing zones.

From a political standpoint, however, the violent Chinese reactions, which included the cancellations of political meetings at the ministerial level, an appearance by Japanese pop group SMAP at the Shanghai Expo and some exchange programs seem to be excessive if not self-defeating. These actions may even contradict Chinese political and diplomatic efforts to use the Shanghai Expo as an occasion to demonstrate, to the rest of the world, China’s new openness and internationalism. They may also run counter to the Chinese alleged intention to foster trust and confidence among the young people of both nations, and to cultivate good relations with the newly formed Kan administration.

The root cause of the Chinese tough attitude toward the incident lies in the fragile nature of Japan-China relations. The general view in China (if not the view of the top leaders) is that the arrest of the Chinese fishing boat captain is a part of the attempt by Japan to strengthen its claim over the islands and is related to rising anti-Chinese national sentiment in Japan.

In China there still exists a widely held view that Japan retains its militaristic tendencies and is ready for aggressive action whenever chances arise. It is astonishing, from a Japanese standpoint, that a large percentage of the Chinese population polled in a recent survey responded that Japan is a militaristic country. This means that many Chinese, willingly or unwillingly, retain an image of Japan based on war-time memories.

There are at least two reasons for this. One is that the fundamental legitimacy of the communist government of China, as the Chinese national anthem implies, is based on the historical fact that it liberated China from Japanese aggression and related miseries.

Of course, one could say that the present Chinese government places more emphasis on economic development as a source of its legitimacy. But this perspective also casts Japan in a negative light. Since it is a source of the regime’s legitimacy, the economic development of China is ascribed entirely to the Chinese policy of “reform and modernization,” and the contribution made by Japanese economic and technological cooperation is generally ignored for political reasons.

A second reason for the persistent Chinese negative view of Japan is that the Chinese authorities are not in a position to appreciate the democratic process that Japan has pursued following World War II, as China’s own political structure has still much to be desired with respect to democracy.

The attempt by Japan to deal with the matter of the Senkaku Islands incident as discreetly as possible within a legal framework is not to be easily understood by the Chinese people because legal procedures in China are often strongly influenced by political considerations, which reveals that Chinese society has still a long way to go to realize true democracy.

Within the conflict between Japan and China over the territorial issue lies, in fact, a deeper political cleavage between the two countries over democracy and the political legitimacy of governments.

Kazuo Ogoura, a political science professor at Aoyama Gakuin University, is president of the Japan Foundation. He has served as Japanese ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary to Vietnam (1994-95), South Korea (1997-99) and France (1999-2002).

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