By Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, Special to CNN
Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt is China and Northeast Asia project director for the International Crisis Group. She is based in Beijing. The views expressed are her own.
Cooler heads are finally prevailing in the heated diplomatic row between China and Japan over ownership of a few rocky islets in the East China Sea. But the activists who fanned patriotic zeal in both countries by forcing their way onto the contested islands will almost certainly strike again. Seeds for far thornier disputes over the sovereignty of the disputed islands have been sown, and the strong leadership necessary to prevent future clashes from spiraling out of control is in short supply.
It might look like the latest diplomatic wrangling started with the Tokyo governor’s announcement in April that he would purchase the uninhabited islets. But in fact it grew from tensions that have been building since at least the fall of 2010, when a Chinese fishing boat captain was arrested after his boat collided with Japanese coast guard vessels in disputed waters near the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, sparking a bilateral crisis.
Nationalism surged on both sides, weighing heavily on relations. High-level visits were suspended and commercial negotiations came to a halt. Beijing resorted to punitive economic measures, crystallizing anxiety in Japan about the intentions of a rising China. The modest progress that had been made in the bilateral relationship over the preceding three years – in the words of a Chinese analyst – “went down the drain.”
As sentiment on both sides soured, China upped the ante by sending its law enforcement vessels further out into disputed waters. According to Chinese analysts, this move was motivated in part by the belief that Beijing could strengthen its claims by more actively patrolling the area, but it also coincided with a move by China towards a more assertive foreign policy.
With more vessels from both governments roaming the disputed waters – which are administered by Japan – the stage has been set for potential skirmishes that could escalate to a level much harder to defuse than the agitation of a handful of activists.
In this context, strong leadership is vital to walk back such incidents. This is all the more important given that the mutual resentment stirred up by each clash paves the way for more in the future, and narrows the already tight space for diplomatic maneuver. Chinese netizens, whose opinions Beijing often takes as proxy for public sentiment, have called Chinese diplomats spineless for not taking a harder line against Japan and lashed out at more moderate commentators as traitors.
But the strength to hold back surging nationalism and the courage to invest political capital in such an endeavor is absent in Beijing. China currently has a gaping vacuum in the oversight of its Japan policy, in the context of a delicate power transfer that happens once every decade. In the words of one Chinese scholar; “we don’t know who is in charge of Japan policy, who is trusted, and whose words count.”
Politicians in China are transfixed by domestic politics and their own position in this sensitive shift of power. No one is willing to expend political capital on an explosive foreign policy issue, daunted by the strong and prevailing nationalist sentiment against Japan.
In the past, Chinese leaders were able to reach a reasonable consensus and give clear directives to try to establish better ties with Tokyo – which was an indispensible partner in China’s development. But in the current crisis, policy experts lament that they do not even know the central goal of the government’s Japan policy. Bureaucrats are left to scramble for responses to each incident, and the public to second guess the government’s intentions.
So while Chinese state media is backing off from more inflammatory anti-Japan rhetoric, its tone cannot replace the leadership that is needed to articulate an overall vision for bilateral relations, expand communication, and steer public opinion. Until such leadership and vision materializes, both sides will be left waiting for the next incident to happen, and hoping that they’ll be able to keep tensions from boiling over when it does.
Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt is China and Northeast Asia project director for the International Crisis Group. She is based in Beijing.