Diaoyu Islands

China and Japan need to act like adults over Diaoyus

Kevin Rafferty says both sides are hurting their hard-won co-operation over a miscommunication

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 September, 2012, 3:12am

The most depressing aspect of the continuing spat between China and Japan over the ownership of uninhabited rocky islands in the East China Sea is the wretched name-calling, along with a dangerous nationalism which could destroy Asia's rapid economic progress.

With China's political handover in the offing and elections on the horizon in Japan, the timing of the latest row could not have been worse. Even so, looking at the personalities who will be in charge next year, it is hard to see a bright new dawn across the China seas.

China's president-in-waiting Xi Jinping lectured visiting US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta that Japan must stop its troublemaking behaviour. So Xi has a sense of humour: this was a cheeky display of chutzpah, given that Beijing and other Chinese cities were cleaning up the mess from days of carefully orchestrated anti-Japanese demonstrations that saw leading Japanese companies - like Canon, Nissan, Panasonic, Uniqlo and Seven & I - shut factories and stores in China for fear of violence.

It came as Chinese vessels prowled the area to make China's claims, and as air tickets for Chinese tours to Japan were cancelled en masse as Beijing encouraged a policy of "sensible patriotism" to squeeze Japan.

What had Japan done to deserve Xi's condemnation? The hapless Yoshihiko Noda, Japan's prime minister, was trying to calm things down by buying the disputed islands from their private Japanese owners, thus preventing maverick nationalist Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara from buying them to wreak who knows what new mischief.

Evidently, there has been a breakdown in communications between Beijing and Tokyo.

Recent events suggest that China's new leaders and the old are agreed on a more assertive policy over disputed territories in the seas around the country. Apart from barrages of statements and increasing Chinese naval presence, Beijing took the novel step of announcing baselines formally to demarcate its territorial waters around the Senkakus/Diaoyus. In Chinese law, this places the islands under its sovereignty and obliges the country to assert its jurisdiction. It is a démarche from its previous policy of seeking joint exploitation of the sea resources.

In addition, China rebuffed Washington's suggestions of mediation, telling the US to stay out of the dispute. Beijing cannot have forgotten that the US is bound by the 1960 treaty to go to Japan's aid if the Senkakus are attacked, so this must be an effort to drive a wedge between Washington and Tokyo.

Senior US generals are sceptical whether the rocks are really worth a war with China. But Washington does have to worry about what a clear Chinese victory would say about US prestige, and about its commitment to freedom of international navigation to protect its own international trade and investment.

There is not much chance of a pleasant surprise from Japan. Noda's government is moth-eaten and does not know where it is going. There will be relief when elections are announced any week now. Not that the Japanese electorate has much of a choice. The opposition Liberal Democratic Party fancies its chances of regaining power and holds its leadership contest next week. But the candidates range from nationalist to rabid nationalist.

A new party hopes to set Japan on fire - the Japan Restoration Party, formed by the telegenic mayor of Osaka, Toru Hashimoto. The "Restoration" in the party's name has echoes of the Meiji Restoration, which saw 19th-century isolationist feudal Japan begin its journey to become a modern industrial country. Hashimoto does not want to restore the emperor to power, but he wants to make Japan great again, a concept with difficult and troubling connotations.

Hashimoto and his party are still very much a work in progress, but he has generally taken a right-wing position, and is seen as close to former prime minister Shinzo Abe. Such is his personal appeal that the Japanese media predict he may win up to 100 seats in the 480-member lower house.

Sensible commentators believe wiser heads will prevail and both China and Japan will see the immense benefits of their multibillion-dollar co-operation. Victorian reformer Richard Cobden declared: "Free trade is God's diplomacy, and there is no other certain way of uniting people in the bonds of peace." But the great peace and prosperity of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was followed by the bitter nationalist war of 1914-1918.

Every commentary says the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands are useless uninhabited and uninhabitable rocks, except that they are in the middle of rich fishing grounds believed to contain valuable oil and gas resources. If so, the sensible thing is to jointly explore them and increase co-operation and prosperity, not indulge in slanging matches over the past and concepts like "sovereignty" over rocks, which cannot be eaten or banked.

Children, stop squabbling. But is there any grown-up in charge in Beijing or Tokyo?

Kevin Rafferty is a political commentator