The appropriate dispute, the unlikely conflict
While critical events in Asia are usually centered on well-known crisis theaters (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Korean peninsula, etc.), in the last few months, the attention of the international community is increasingly focused on Northeast Asia, where an unusual Sino-Japanese effervescence, made of nationalistic declarations, diplomatic frictions and martial gesticulations fed by Beijing and Tokyo is taking place.
In Europe, the public opinion – not really aware neither of the complicated historical relations, nor of the trade links existing between China and Japan – started to be moved by the turn of events when TV networks showed Chinese, Japanese and even Taiwanese navy vessels maneuver close to a miniscule and uninhabited archipelago (Diaoyu for Beijing, Senkaku for Tokyo) whose sovereignty is -to say the least – disputed by these Asian giants. Hitherto, the Chinese repeated warnings, the on-site visits of Japanese dignitaries, the recent nationalization of part the archipelago by the Nippon government as well as the renewed calls for restraint originating from the outside world (especially from Washington) had only generated modest attention.
From concern to the fear of a deteriorating situation leading to a more serious scenario, editorialists and pessimistic defense experts were quick to detect the signs of a likely China-Japan conflict. An assessment, fortunately simplistic, that will deceive its candid promoters.
Various elements militate in favor of the conflict that will never be thesis. First of all, in this subtle northeastern Asian matrix built on rival ambitions, appearances and declarations do not necessarily translate into actions. But, if Beijing shouts so loudly, its domestic political agenda is for something in this volatile equation. A delicate once in a decade power transition is reaching its final stage in China; a moment not exactly favorable to present a weak visage to the largest demography on earth and to the rest of the world. In Tokyo, the domestic political context is similarly weighing heavily on this interstate dispute. Tired after a succession of difficult domestic challenges to cope with (earthquake, tsunami, nuclear disaster) and harassed by a political opposition avid to get back to power – whatever the national price and the regional coasts -, the cabinet of Prime minister Noda is not ready to die without fighting. With a general election, rendezvous scheduled in December – resulting in a plausible alternance -, the stakes are high; matching the Chinese posture is a political necessity.
Even so, despite some appearances again, neither the Japanese nor the Chinese authorities are willing to go beyond the current level of tension. Second and Third economies in the world, China and Japan have both so much to lose in any sort of negative spiral of events developing. In political, economic and trade circles – may be even in the hawkish military and ultra nationalist spheres – , everybody is dearly convinced of this obvious reality. In 2011, the Sino-Japanese trade reached a new high, totaling the 345 US$ billions mark (+14% on the previous mark). For China – whose GDP growth rate in 2012 is expected to be the weakest in years (around +7.5%) -, in this period of contraction of the world economy (i.e in Europe), Japan remains its first import and second export partner. For Tokyo, the table is even clearer: its economy was in recession in 2011 (-0.7%) and uncertainties remain on its short-term capabilities. China remains its first import and export partner. The kind of critical level of relationships no one voluntarily sacrifices, just for small pieces of rocks (however rich in precious fisheries and energy resources), even in the name of a sacred national pride. No matter if more anti-Japanese rallies are staged through Chinese cities or if Japanese exports to China temporarily suffer an unwelcome significant fall.
In this area familiar with typhoons and severe weather, even if this impressive Sino-Japanese thunderstorm may still – for sure – last for some time, this tempest shall definitely not transform into a destructive tsunami that no one really wants to happen, in Beijing as well as in Tokyo.
Karim Emile Bitar
Research Fellow, Institute for International & Strategic Relations France, Lebanon, USA »
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