China not to pick that East China Sea fight

For Asia Times www.atimes.com
By Jens Kastner

TAIPEI – Reports run by mainland Chinese media make it seem as if war between China and Japan is imminent following the recent high-profile landings by Chinese and Japanese nationalists on the East China Sea’s Senkaku Islands – called Diaoyu in Chinese – which are controlled by Japan and claimed by China and Taiwan.

Anti-Japanese protests have been taking place in cities across China, with thousands calling on Beijing to take up the hatchet against arch-rival Japan, yet in reality the prospect of combat action in the East China Sea is about as remote as ever.

Even so, the otherwise relatively sober Hong Kong weekly Yazhou Zhoukan dedicated half of its latest edition to advising how China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) should forcefully take the Diaoyu Islands from the Japanese. On the magazine’s cover page, two heroic warriors – one from China, one from Taiwan – are seen clutching their assault rifles against the backdrop of a rock in the ocean, and in more than a dozen articles the PLA and the PLA Navy are told that it should unleash its submarines, air power and anti-ship ballistic missiles against the US-Japan security alliance.

The daily news coverage by international wire services does its share in sending chills down the spines: Japanese restaurants and Japanese-made cars are being smashed in China, and even the car of Japanese Ambassador Uichiro Niwa in Beijing was assaulted. On top of that, PLA brass have been arguing in countless interviews that the time has come for China to dare go on the attack.

If all these impressions are taken together, it becomes very clear that Japan can no longer ignore that many in China want to hear the war drums being beaten.

The question arises how high is the likelihood that the Chinese government is indeed considering paying heed to the increasingly impatient calls for bloodshed. According to experts interviewed by Asia Times Online, close to zero.

“Such pressure from the general public is not particularly significant when the leadership is strong, confident and stable,” said Steve Tsang, director of the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute. “The CCP [Chinese Communist Party] has no wish to get into a military confrontation with Japan unless and until it can be sure it will come out better, about which it cannot be certain in the foreseeable future.”

While it might seem as if PLA major generals and senior colonels who promote a bloodthirsty stance on Chinese TV shows and in newspaper interviews could exert significant pressure on the Chinese civilian leadership to forcefully take the Senkakus, their media comments are deceptive, said Tsang.

“They are allowed to make hawkish noises but they can be reined in by a strong leadership,” he said.

Bonnie Glaser, a senior fellow with the US-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, agrees that Beijing is nowhere near to seeking combat. According to her, the Chinese are crystal clear that the Diaoyu Islands are covered under the US-Japan Mutual Cooperation and Security Treaty because the islands are under Japan’s administrative control.

“They understand that any use of force by China against the islands would immediately involve the United States,” she said.

A closer look at the bigger picture reveals what Beijing wants to achieve, and that military confrontation with the US, which could easily end China’s economic miracle, isn’t part of the plan.

In editorials run by the state-run Global Times that are often written by either the Foreign Ministry or the CCP’s Publicity Department and that have been published both in Chinese and English to make sure audiences at home and abroad take note, the game plan is fairly clearly laid out.

While respectfully applauding the anti-Japan movement and ostensibly urging the Chinese government to ready the PLA’s arms for combat, the overarching aims that are subtly identified are distinctively dovish: Japan should be discouraged from doing anything that legitimizes its claims, so that the door stays open for future negotiations.

Calls for actual combat are not only conspicuous by their absence but even explicitly dismissed: to “retrieve” Diaoyu Islands by force now would be “unwise” and China should instead “be restrained and further increase its strength”.

The editorials furthermore suggest that if shots were fired, Beijing would do what was necessary to prevent the situation from escalating into a full-out war. “The clashes will be kept within certain parameters,” the authors assuringly said.

Jean-Pierre Cabestan, head of Hong Kong Baptist University’s Department of Government and International Relations, singled out what Beijing is actually up to. “The Chinese government strategy is to try to compel the Japanese government to admit that there is a territorial dispute around the Senkaku, which is not the case now,” he said.

In mid-August, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak made a controversial visit to Dokdo, a Korean-controlled island claimed by the Japanese, who call it Takeshima. The Koreans have long had an actual military position on Dokdo, effectively making their case many times stronger than Japan’s. Seeing that there is little concrete chance that Tokyo is ever going to gain sovereignty over the island, the Japanese opted for the last possible maneuver, which is trying to bring the case to the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

The Japanese government has also been attempting do take similar action over its other hopeless sovereignty issue, namely with Russia over the Kuril Islands, known in Russia as the Southern Kurils.

The Koreans and Russians in their respective positions of strength can simply refuse to admit that a sovereignty dispute exists between them and Japan, and as international arbitration demands the consent of both sides, the Japanese can only resort to being persistent.

In the case of the Senkakus, it is exactly the other way around. Here, it is Tokyo that has the say, and just as Moscow and Seoul do in their spats with Tokyo, the Japanese refuse to even talk to Beijing and Taipei over the case. The powerful backing of the US-Japan defense treaty makes Japanese concessions almost completely unnecessary, and Beijing understands that it must first isolate Tokyo from the US if it wants to force the Japanese to the negotiation table and make them a head shorter there.

In recent weeks, there have been clear moves by the Chinese government to achieve precisely this end. Aiming at sowing doubt in Tokyo that the US will choose to be an active combatant in case of a Sino-Japanese war, it was leaked to Chinese media that the PLA has tested a new intercontinental ballistic missile that can reach targets all over the US.

To be seen in the same context, a new submarine-launched ballistic missile was test-launched shortly afterwards; if equipped with nuclear warheads these weapsons could wipe out US cities. On August 27, the PLA declared that its nuclear arsenal is fully mobile so that it now can launch missiles against US targets from anywhere in China even if the US were to nuke China first.

When dealing with China’s neighbors, particularly on highly contentious issues, it has been the hallmark approach of most of the country’s great leaders, from the historic emperors to Deng Xiaoping, to “put aside differences and look forward” and to “seek common ground while reserving differences”.

The significant downside to these ancient pieces of wisdom arguably is that if controversies are shelved again and again, they do not go away but add up. By alternately fanning and cooling the anti-Japan movement at home while working relentlessly to isolate Japan, the contemporary Chinese leadership at long last seeks to get rid of the time-tested approach. It paves the way to sort out inherited sovereignty quarrels once and for all. But that historic change of attitude won’t lead to war with Japan any time soon.

“Over some rocks? I don’t see this happening,” said Glaser. “All their neighbors would respond by cementing closer ties with the United States; China’s neighborhood would be very unfriendly for a long time. The Chinese are much smarter than that.”

Jens Kastner is a Taipei-based journalist. 

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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