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Beijing\'s unwanted spat with Tokyo

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21 September 2010 13:42

Yan Xu is a graduate student from the Department of International Relations, Tsinghua University in Beijing. He is an intern at the Lowy Institute.

For some China watchers, the recent spat between China and Japan over a boat collision near the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands serves as a fresh evidence of Beijing's growing assertiveness. Indeed, it sounds reasonable enough to argue that China, after surpassing Japan to become the world's second largest economy (a position Japan has occupied for more than 40 years), would act more arrogantly towards its eastern neighbour.

However, I seriously doubt that Beijing would be glad to let its relationship with Tokyo freefall. In fact, since former Japanese PM Junichiro Koizumi stepped down in 2006, the two governments have made huge efforts to 'melt the ice' and made significant progress. Chinese diplomats would be very upset if their years of efforts were ruined overnight. Besides, after being besieged in the ARF meeting in Hanoi over the South China Sea dispute and seeing a massive US-Korea joint military exercise in the Yellow Sea, what Chinese leaders want least is more tension with Japan.

Incidents similar to the recent one have happened before in this highly disputed area, and in the past, both sides refrained from taking provocative actions. This time, Japan chose to take a much harder stance: it boarded the Chinese trawler, detained its crew and prosecuted the captain under Japanese domestic law. This has caused fury not only across mainland China but also in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Chinese communities overseas. And unsurprisingly, the Chinese Government response has been unusually tough as well.

It's no coincidence that Tokyo chose to magnify the collision at this moment. The ruling DPJ has just gone through a bitter leadership contest, during which both the incumbent Naoto Kan and the challenging Ichiro Ozawa tried to appeal to party voters by displaying toughness on foreign issues.

Moreover, Japanese diplomats might have been convinced that this time, when US-China relations were strained because of a series of incidents since late 2009 (including wrangles in Copenhagen, US arms sale to Taiwan and the recent disharmony in the Yellow Sea and South China Sea), there would be a better chance to have their Chinese counterparts yield ground. After all, having tense relations with both US and Japan at the same time is a scenario that Chinese diplomats want to avoid.

But Tokyo has miscalculated. As China becomes a more open society and the influence of Chinese netizens continues to grow, Chinese leaders now more often have to respond to domestic public opinion, especially regarding sensitive issues like the Diaoyu Islands. Even if Beijing wants to compromise this time, it will find itself restrained. Thus, although Chinese leaders don't want to see rising tension with Japan, they will not easily back off.

Photo by Flickr user Mikl Olivier, used under a Creative Commons license.

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