China, the awakened giant

| April 5, 2013 | 0 Comments

Some of the tiny uninhabited islets in a territorial dispute between China, Japan and Taiwan.

“China? There lies a sleeping giant. Let him sleep! For when he wakes he will move the world.”
Although Napoleon Bonaparte made his prophecy about the eventual rise of China two centuries ago, it turns out he intuitively understood that one day China would, in fact, become a major force to be reckoned with on a global basis.
Few would question the dramatic increase in China’s international trade and economic importance. Last year, it eclipsed the U.S. as the world’s largest trader. Now, 124 countries consider China their lead trading partner. China’s trade and investment policies influence world markets — even the prosperity of a number of nations — especially resource-rich countries such as Canada, which regard exports to China as a top priority.
However, a number of countries, especially in East Asia, are increasingly concerned about China’s emergence as an international powerhouse, especially its growing military strength, which some regard with trepidation.
Such concern has reached the point where, despite Japan’s occupation of the Philippines in the Second World War, the Philippines’ foreign minister paradoxically stated publicly in January that his country would welcome a greater Japanese military role in the East Asian region to bring more balance.
In some East Asian states, such concerns have been reinforced by perceived hardline positions Beijing has adopted regarding territorial disputes with several of its neighbours, some involving tiny uninhabited islets in the East and South China seas.
In September, one such territorial dispute resulted in a tense showdown between China and Japan, following the Japanese government’s decision to purchase, from a private Japanese citizen, the only non-state island among the disputed islands (Diaoyu Dao to the Chinese and Senkakus to the Japanese), which Japan has been administering under an arrangement with the United States since 1971, but which Beijing, as well as Taiwan, claim historically belong to them.
Tokyo’s “purchase” of the islands and their “nationalization” unleashed large-scale anti-Japanese demonstrations in China, plus a boycott of Japanese products, followed by provocative naval and air moves by the two countries near the disputed islands.
During an address to China’s Communist Party Politburo in January, that country’s new leader, Xi Jinping said, “No foreign country should expect us to make a deal on our core interests and hope we will swallow the bitter pill that will damage our sovereignty, security and development interests.”
Some observers regard Xi Jinping’s remarks as linked to China’s refusal to accept Japan’s claim over the disputed islets — thought to have potential underwater oil and gas deposits — and an intended slap on the wrist directed at the Obama government for emphasizing Japan had been given the right to administer the islets.
There’s no reason to believe either country wants to see its differences escalate to armed conflict, though such territorial disputes have, in the past, done exactly that, as in 1988 when a naval clash between China and Vietnam over the Spratly Islands resulted in the deaths of more than 70 Vietnamese sailors.
There is also fear that any significant economic downturn in China — Chinese banks reportedly had to recently roll over $482 billion in loans to local governments to avoid embarrassing defaults — could further harden Beijing’s approach to disputes with Japan and other neighbours. Recent seemingly pointed comments by senior Chinese military staff that China should be better prepared to defend its national interests haven’t gone unnoticed.
One new factor, which could potentially complicate the situation, is the perceived threat posed by the purported rise of nationalism in Japan. In recent times, sectors of Japanese society have been calling for Japan to be more forceful in pursuing policies that reflect its economic importance and independent identity.
Many on the right maintain that Japan’s military expansion in East Asia before and during the Second World War has been falsified to serve the interests of the victors.
One who publicly shares that opinion is Japan’s newly elected prime minister, Shinzo Abe, whose Liberal Democratic Party, LDP, won a sweeping victory in December.
In the past, Mr. Abe, a former prime minister, infuriated Japan’s neighbours, particularly China and the two Koreas, when he visited the Yasukuni Shrine that honours Japan’s war dead, including those executed by an Allied War Crimes Tribunal for committing war crimes. He has also publicly denied that the Japanese military forced thousands of women from East Asian countries, especially Koreans, into becoming “comfort women” (sex slaves) for Japanese troops.
His return to power, accompanied by a number of ultra-nationalists in his cabinet, plus others who share his right-wing views, could have an adverse effect on relations with China if not handled carefully.
The fact that Mr. Abe wants to revise Japan’s U.S.-imposed constitution committing Japan to pacifism is also a move that won’t go unnoticed by Beijing, with unpredictable implications for the East Asian region as Japan’s new ultra-nationalist government attempts to restore Japan’s once dominant economic clout and prominent global role.

Harry Sterling, a former diplomat, is an Ottawa-based commentator who writes on East Asian issues. This article first appeared in The Toronto Star.

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