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November 26th, 2012, by Augusto Soto

Augusto Soto

The China-Japan crisis in a broader perspective


The protracted crisis between China and Japan over control of the island group known as the Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China is a bilateral dispute with more Asian and global reverberations than ever.

Beijing’s top level absence of global annual financial meetings of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in Tokyo last month caused particular concern in the international community. It was clearly seen as another chapter of the maritime dispute between China and Japan triggered last August.

Analysts are divided between those who expect crisis de-escalation as in recent misunderstandings in 2005 and 2010 and those who foresee gloomier scenarios.

The trouble began on August 15, when Japanese authorities arrested Chinese citizens after they staged a protest in one of the islands claimed by China but controlled by Japan. One week later, Tokyo decided to nationalize three of the islands in order to avoid their purchase by Japanese nationalists. It provoked spiraling rage in several Chinese cities, which led to a boycott of Japanese products and halted production of some Japanese companies in China. Meanwhile, a number of naval skirmishes have provoked the exchange of strong accusations and inconclusive talks.

Gone are the times of visionary statesmen heralding a new era of understanding. In the 60s, Japanese Prime Minister Shigero Yoshida declared: “Whilst we have much to learn from the West in terms of abstract logic, I remain convinced that Chinese literature and poetry are infinitely more valuable for their ability to grasp human relationships”. In 1978, the then vice premier, Deng Xiaoping, started his historical trips in Japan, where he declared: “We learn from and pay respect to the Japanese people, who are great, brave and intelligent”. The nineties also marked milestones when for the first time a Japanese emperor visited China and a Chinese head of State visited Japan. Unfortunately, more recently economic ties have been reinforced in sharp contrast with bilateral diplomacy.

Some analysts believe that dangerous escalation leading to war is impossible since both countries are part of the same global supply chain. Others stress that Washington is bound by treaty to defend Japan. That engagement would be tantamount to deterrence. But, if in this crisis or in the next one it does not work exactly in that way, is the world ready to see the unleashing of trade wars or military clashes among giants for the islands in dispute?

One month ago it was announced that Japan and the United States would conduct a military drill in Okinawa Prefecture during the latter half of a broader joint exercise scheduled for November coinciding with the 18th Congress of the Communist Party of China. The drill was described as the first of its kind in Japan, but bowing to pressure from Beijing it was subsequently cancelled.

Meanwhile, it is clear that none of the parties intend proposing international arbitration to settle or mediate the ongoing dispute. Perhaps an ad hoc regional forum to handle risk management in order to avoid escalation could be considered. Of course, deciding ownership or shelving the issue of the islands should be left to both parties.

On the other hand, peace is a task for each generation. In 2005, China was hit by anti-Japanese demonstrations. Japan approved school books which critics said whitewashed its wartime past in Asia. In 2010 relations suffered after a misunderstanding lead to the arrest of a Chinese trawler captain near the islands.

Current perceptions based in history certainly play a significant role in the dispute. It is perhaps safe to assume that in the future, no matter how difficult it might seem, parts of past history could be re-written by both countries.

Germany and France, foes in World War II as well as in several wars in the past have recently launched a common textbook project explaining their own conflicts. It is one of the most meaningful peace initiatives launched in Europe in the last 60 years, actually a few decades in which most of the continent has enjoyed its longest period of peace in its history. This accomplishment is, by the way, one of the pillars of the 2012 Peace Nobel Prize.


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2 Responses to “Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel: Between Idealism and Realism”
  1. saitam says:

    Buen articulo Augusto, efectivamente el tema de China y los derechos humanos está cruzado con los intereses económicos de varias naciones, lo cual ciertamente no era asi en los tiempos de Tianamen, y esa es la gran debilidad para enfrentar este tema hoy dia

  2. Augusto Soto says:

    Gracias, Saitam,

    Por tu oportuno comentario, que valoro mucho viniendo de quien viene. Hay, como mencionas, intereses de varias naciones en una de las grandes cuestiones de nuestro tiempo.

    Cordiales saludos,

    Augusto Soto

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