Don't play politics with China, Mr Koizumi

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 February, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 February, 2005, 12:00am

While the Chinese were in the mood to celebrate their Lunar New Year, Tokyo last week announced that it had taken control of a lighthouse built by a Japanese right-wing group on one of the Diaoyu Islands.

Named Diaoyutai in China and Senkaku in Japan, the disputed islands form a small chain northeast of Taiwan. Beijing, Taipei and Tokyo all claim sovereignty. The mainland government claimed that the latest move was a 'severe provocation'. Taipei also protested. But Japan has backed up its claim by putting together a 55,000-member military unit, ready to fight a 'possible Chinese invasion' of the islands.

The question is: why did the Japanese government take this action now, knowing full well that it would trigger a strong reaction from Beijing? After all, it has had de facto control of the islands over the years; the authorities in the mainland and Taipei have shown no intention of using any means other than diplomacy to back their claims.

Many reports speculate that China's rapid rise as a global power has generated fear in Japan, and that China's recent exploration of gas and oil fields in waters close to the area claimed by Japan may have caused Tokyo to take a more assertive stand. Beijing's position that Japan's southernmost Okinotori islets are merely 'rocks', and thus do not enjoy territorial status as defined by the UN, may also have angered Tokyo. This could be so, but Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and his supporters may well have other designs in mind.

Mr Koizumi was elected in 2001 on high public expectations that he would fix the mounting domestic problems that had left Japan stagnating for a decade. But he has delivered nothing substantial. Instead, taking full advantage of the anxieties following the September 11 terrorist attacks, he pushed a series of laws through the Diet, removing all barriers for the Self-Defence Forces to operate in conflicts beyond Japan's borders. This paved the way for troops to be despatched to Iraq.

In East Asia, hawks in the Koizumi administration have spent much time exaggerating the North Korean threat, creating fear of an imminent missile attack or invasion. Mr Koizumi also chose to challenge Beijing by worshipping at the Yasukuni Shrine, which honours war criminals.

By generating xenophobia and resentment towards foreign criticism, Mr Koizumi has consolidated his core support base from the right and diverted public attention from his domestic failures, enabling him to remain in power.

But lately, there are indications that some of these strategies are not working in his favour: his backing of the US invasion of Iraq has never been popular; fewer and fewer people believe that Tokyo's approach to North Korea is effective; and more and more Japanese are losing patience with Mr Koizumi's empty promises of domestic reforms.

Japan's courts have ruled that Mr Koizumi's visits to the Yasukuni Shrine are unconstitutional. Even his own party members have begun to question the wisdom of such a provocative approach. Rather than continuing to play his Yasukuni hand, Mr Koizumi may now shift to a new game by showing his sovereignty card.

The overwhelming press coverage of the recent intrusion of a Chinese submarine into Japanese waters may well play into Mr Koizumi's hands. By identifying China as a threat and standing firm in the troubled waters around the Diaoyu Islands, he could score some domestic points.

However, Tokyo's latest show of strength may neither solve the territorial disputes nor necessarily enhance Japan's long-term security concerns. Even if Beijing refrains from taking any action now, what will happen in the near future, when China's military is much stronger, and has a leadership that might be much more willing to counter force with force?

Wenran Jiang, twice a Japan Foundation Fellow, is an associate professor of political science at the University of Alberta, Canada