Islands row not worth the trade risks

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 September, 2012, 1:15pm

Patriotism has been called many things. It is the last refuge of scoundrels, according to English author Samuel Johnson. It is the virtue of the vicious, according to Oscar Wilde.

Given their sage advice, perhaps one should risk being called a traitor every now and then. Now is such a time.

Nationalist fervour is boiling over again in Hong Kong and across the mainland over the Diaoyu Islands. The latest dust-ups between Beijing and Tokyo seem wholly unfortunate and avoidable. But there is no good or face-saving way out of this row unless both sides dial down the volume. Vandalism against Japanese business interests must be condemned, and boycotting Japanese goods is either futile or counterproductive.

While the usual anti-China commentariat has blamed Beijing for being the bully, you have to admit that the Japanese prime minister has been rather provocative of late.

After activists from Hong Kong, Macau and the mainland landed on the empty rocks in August, Yoshihiko Noda loudly affirmed sovereignty over those isles. His government then bought the disputed islands from a Japanese family, prompting Beijing to submit "baseline" territorial boundaries to the UN. This tit-for-tat can easily get out of hand.

China and Japan have become the most important trade partners in Asia. China accounts for 19 per cent of Japan's exports, compared with 3.5 per cent in 1990. Japan has been a vital source of technology and production know-how, not to mention financial aid.

Since the last massive anti-Japan riots on the mainland in 2005, trade has grown 12 per cent. Whatever stakes there are over the islands, they are not worth threatening the trade and peace between these two nations.

It is times like this that true patriots on both sides should urge moderation and negotiation over the agitations of scoundrels. Let cooler heads into the room; diplomats are good at papering over differences.

History prevents China and Japan from being natural allies, but economic realities have made them great trade partners. If this is to be the Asian century and China is to be seen as a great power once again, sustaining and expanding this trade partnership is vital.