The middle of August is always politically charged in East Asia. The anniversary of Japan’s surrender at the end of the Second World War is marked each year by a fresh airing of the grievances that still exist between Tokyo and its neighbours.
This week saw the scars picked at again, with Beijing and Seoul emphasizing their claims to islands that Japan considers its own, and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak saying Emperor Akihito could only visit after he apologized for wartime atrocities committed by the Japanese army.
It’s unlikely. Many Japanese feel the period of atonement has passed. Nationalist politicians, including the right-wing governor of Tokyo, are pushing Japan to take a more assertive stand in lingering territorial disputes as the country struggles to deal with the twin realities of China’s rise and its own decline.
Unpopular, and facing the possibility of an early election – and with more than three-quarters of the electorate characterizing relations with China as “not friendly” in a recent poll – Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda may have little choice but to take a tougher line than he would like. This week he saw two of his cabinet ministers mark the war anniversary by visiting the Yasukuni Shrine, where infamous war criminals are among the buried soldiers.
The neighbours aren’t behaving much better. Politicians in Beijing and Seoul are also tacking right to score easy points at home at the expense of relations with Tokyo. Mr. Lee has bounced from being one of South Korea’s most overtly pro-Japanese leaders ever to a boldly antagonistic one, this week becoming the first South Korean president to visit the Dokdo Islands, a cluster of jagged islets also claimed by Japan (which calls them Takeshima). Mr. Lee declared them “a place worth staking our lives to defend” before turning his rhetorical fire on Japan’s revered Emperor.
China’s state-run media has made national heroes out of 14 Hong Kong activists who entered Japanese waters on Wednesday – the anniversary of the end of the war – to plant Chinese flags on another disputed atoll. Neither the outgoing President Hu Jintao nor Vice-President Xi Jinping, who is set to inherit power this fall, wants to look weak when it comes to standing up to Japan.
The 14 were arrested on Wednesday after Japanese coast guard vessels rammed their ship, setting the stage for a showdown over their treatment, with Beijing demanding their immediate release.
“China will not accept any legal steps taken by the Japanese side against the Chinese activists.… No other compromise should be made by the Chinese side either,” thundered the nationalist Global Times newspaper.
Japan’s ambassador to Beijing was summoned for a dressing-down, and protesters demonstrated on cue outside the Japanese embassy here. Meanwhile, the Japanese coast guard reported that a ship belonging to China’s State Oceanic Administration was spotted near the contested waters in an implicit threat to escalate the dispute.
In a recognition that it may be time to turn the temperature back down, Mr. Noda’s government on Friday sought to defuse the diplomatic showdown by deporting the activists rather than pursuing charges against them under Japanese law, as Mr. Noda had initially promised to do.
But the decision to deport the 14 men might only postpone a confrontation over the islands that are called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China.
The next challenge comes from the outspoken governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara. Fed up with the central government’s unwillingness to confront a rising China, he has launched a plan to buy the five disputed islands – which are currently privately owned by a Japanese family – with public money.
Mr. Ishihara’s plan has captured imaginations in Japan, with more than $17-million in donations pouring into a special website set up by the Tokyo government’s “Senkaku Islands Project Team.” The Kurihara family that owns the islands has accepted the offer in principle, though the price is still being negotiated.
“Sleeping people have been awakened and are becoming conscious about national defence,” Hiroyuki Kurihara, a member of the family that owns the islands, said in an interview. Mr. Kurihara said the islands have been in his older brother’s name for the past five decades, but admitted the family hadn’t visited them for more than 15 years. He said the only known residents are a burgeoning herd of goats.
(Japan annexed the Senkaku Islands in 1895; the United States occupied them in 1945 and returned them to Japan in 1971. Beijing’s claim is based on the atoll appearing on Chinese maps for centuries before that. The main reason Beijing and Tokyo are interested now is the probability of large deposits of oil and gas in the seabed nearby. Elsewhere, tensions have been simmering since the spring between China and Philippines: The object of that faceoff is the Scarborough Shoal, a triangle of rocks and reefs in the rich fishing grounds of the South China Sea).
Mr. Ishihara’s purchase plan has generated predictable anger from Beijing, with some hardliners even suggesting that China should respond by expanding its claim to the entire Ryukyu archipelago, including the much larger island of Okinawa, which is home to a major U.S. air base. Caught off-guard by the groundswell of public support for Mr. Ishihara’s idea, Mr. Noda’s government has belatedly responded by saying it will later purchase the islands from Tokyo, which would at least allow it to keep control of the potentially dangerous diplomatic fallout.
“Public sentiment toward China today is the worst [it has been over] the last three decades,” said Yuki Asaba, an associate professor of international relations at Yamaguchi Prefectural University in southern Japan. “It will take some considerable time and patience for the Japanese to reconcile themselves with the undeniable fact that Japan has been surpassed by China as an economic power, and to find a new role and identity in a rapidly changing strategic environment.”
However, Prof. Asaba said there was too much at stake for East Asia’s powers – which, despite the acrimony, are on the verge of signing a trilateral free-trade pact – to let the situation deteriorate beyond the escalating war of words.
Even the Global Times agreed. “In the future, China can launch more various actions to assert its sovereignty over Diaoyu, forcing Japan to gradually relinquish its control over the Islands,” read an editorial printed Friday that celebrated Japan’s decision to back down in the face of Chinese pressure to release the activists. “However, it’s no longer the time for major powers to resort to war to settle territorial disputes.”