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[Kwan Weng Kin] Weak Tokyo makes strong Beijing bolder

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Published : 2010-09-28 17:02
Updated : 2010-09-28 17:02

Many Japanese could not believe their ears. Neither could many countries in Asia.

After days of attempting to flex its political muscle, Japan suddenly caved in on Sept. 24 and returned a detained trawler captain to China in the face of escalating Chinese economic and other threats.

Whether the victory for Beijing was the result of a vastly emboldened China or, as is now apparent, diplomatic mistakes by Japan’s greenhorn Democrat-led government is quite beside the point.

That Japan was seen to be bullied into giving in to China demonstrated to the world in the starkest of terms the shifting power equation in the region.

It was, of course, no overnight change.

The signs were long in coming. As the Chinese economy grew in recent years, so too did Beijing’s voice in the region.

At the same time, the Chinese naval presence looms larger than ever before, and Beijing has been increasingly assertive in staking its claims to the Spratly Islands and several other island clusters in the region.

Beijing’s shrill objection to Japan’s detention of its trawler captain on Sept. 7 following a collision with a Japanese vessel was that it had taken place near the Senkaku Islands, which China calls the Diaoyu Islands and claims as its own territory.

Earlier this year, China finally overtook Japan to become the world’s second-largest economy.

That alone, however, cannot account for the new intransigent face of China that we have seen in the past three weeks as it demanded that Japan return the captain.

Had Japan’s security alliance with the United States been as strong as it was under previous Liberal Democrat governments, China would probably have thought twice before turning the screws on Japan.

But Japan’s security ties with the U.S. have been considerably weakened through the fault of Japan’s last premier Yukio Hatoyama, who upset Washington through his bungled attempt to find an alternative site for a U.S. airbase in Okinawa.

Hatoyama had also sown suspicion in the minds of U.S. administration officials with his avowed desire to see Japan have an “equal relationship” with the U.S.

China was no doubt encouraged enough by the weakening of the Japan-U.S. security relationship to take an unprecedentedly tough line against Japan over the captain’s detention.

But Japan’s climbdown does not necessarily mean it will always have to play second fiddle to China in future.

“Japan is still a major power in terms of its economy and military strength. The Japanese should remind themselves of this fact and regain their composure,” said Professor Kan Kimura, an East Asia expert at Kobe University.

But he acknowledges that the weakening of Japan’s leadership has taken its toll on the country.

According to Jiji Press, Asia expert Bruce Klingner of the Heritage Foundation sees Japan’s surrender to China as a setback for not only Japan, but also the U.S.

The signal that Japan has sent to China, he says, endangers the future peace and stability of Asia.

It will only embolden China further into taking provocative actions in the region, making it all the harder for the U.S. to tackle regional issues by strengthening its alliances with Japan and South Korea.

To Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s dismay, the return of the trawler captain has not put an end to the crisis.

Not only has China not expressed any appreciation for the captain’s release, but it has instead demanded an apology and compensation from Japan, which the Japanese leader has dismissed as outrageous.

Using the captain’s detention as an excuse, China has also suspended negotiations with Japan on the joint exploration of disputed marine gas fields, and has reportedly begun undersea drilling.

The crisis has indeed cast a long shadow over Japan-China ties, which are unlikely to recover any time soon.

Premier Wen Jiabao, previously one of the strongest proponents among China’s top leaders of better ties with Japan, is now seemingly one of its strongest critics.

As China enters a stage of leadership renewal and transfer of power, and with Chinese military leaders now apparently in the ascendancy in Beijing, leaders like Wen are obliged to take on a less pro-Japan hue.

The impact on bilateral economic ties is likely to be enormous.

Japanese businesses, freshly alarmed by the Chinese government’s latest show of belligerence in protecting its core interests, and by China’s increasingly demanding workforce, are likely to take their factories to other low-cost production centres such as Vietnam and Indonesia.

As for the Kan administration, it may have been legally justified in arresting the Chinese captain, but whether or not it was the right diplomatic decision is another thing.

One also questions the Japanese government’s continued assertion that there is no territorial dispute over the Senkaku Islands, despite the fact that both China and Taiwan lay claim to them.

With no informal channels to the top Chinese leadership, as past Liberal Democrat governments had, and with ministers who lack experience in diplomatic negotiations, the Kan administration is clearly no match for its bigger and vastly more experienced neighbor.

Even while the present crisis remains unresolved, Kan faces the very real question of what to do if Chinese trawlers were again to trespass into Japanese territorial waters.

The current crisis is as much the result of a resurgent China as it is of an ineffective leadership in Japan.

In the end, something has to give, and it could well be the current Japanese administration.

By Kwan Weng Kin

Kwan Weng Kin is the Japan correspondent for the Straits Times. Ed.

(The Straits Times)

(Asia News Network)