By Scott Harold, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Scott Harold is an associate political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. The views expressed are his own.
When nationalistic Chinese activists from Hong Kong waded ashore onto the Japan-controlled Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands on August 15, they could hardly have hoped for a better outcome – a quick arrest and expulsion by Japanese authorities, followed by an explosion of anti-Japanese sentiment in China. For Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders engaged in a once-a-decade political transition and managing the fallout from the Bo Xilai affair, the islands crisis presents a potential opportunity, albeit one that carries tremendous downside risks. If the CCP can direct popular anger towards Japan, it can potentially deflect attention away from its own corruption and human rights abuses; on the other hand, if its response amounts to little more than heated rhetoric, Party leaders could open themselves up to being attacked as false patriots.
Indeed, the current instance of Sino-Japanese tension carries greater risks for China’s leaders than other recent blow-ups in the relationship for three reasons.
First, China’s leaders are themselves unusually enfeebled at present due to their ongoing leadership transition, with many observers describing Hu Jintao as the first “lame duck” president the country has had since the Communists took over in 1949. It is doubtful whether any Chinese leader today possesses the authority to compromise on the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands issue; certainly there are none who would do so at a time when the leadership is being actively reshuffled and the slightest misstep could mean withering criticism from political rivals angling for a spot on the next Politburo.
Second, China’s assertiveness in previous crises with Japan has made Japanese leaders across the political spectrum less likely to compromise with Beijing. In 2005, when Chinese demonstrators took to the streets over Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s visit to a shrine for Japan’s war dead, opposition party leaders from the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) echoed China’s criticisms and expressed the view that they would manage China ties better; four years later, the DPJ took power committed to improving relations with China.
Nonetheless, in September 2010, Beijing reacted harshly after the Japan Coast Guard arrested a Chinese fishing vessel in waters near the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, cutting off rare earth exports to Japan and cancelling tour group visits. In so doing, China’s leaders undercut their most cooperative partners in Tokyo and confirmed for broad swathes of the Japanese public that it would be foolish to place much hope in good relations with China. Indeed, such actions, combined with China’s decade-long military modernization drive, have helped push Tokyo to reorient its defense doctrine away from defending against a Russian threat to the north and towards defending against a threat from China originating to Japan’s south and west.
Finally, China’s nationalistic protests have fueled counter-demonstrations in Japan and an effort by Tokyo to consolidate central government control over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, currently owned by private Japanese citizens. Despite being under pressure because of his cabinet’s low approval ratings over unpopular tax hikes and controversial nuclear energy policy, Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko has nonetheless taken some smart steps to de-escalate tensions, including blocking far-right Japanese nationalists such as Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara from leading a land survey team to the islands. Like China, Japan is also in political transition mode, with fall leadership elections in both major political parties, meaning the pressures to engage in nationalistic political posturing are high and Tokyo’s room for compromise is limited.
As such, with an action-reaction cycle in full swing between China and Japan, it would not be surprising if demonstrations and tensions continue to grow in the lead-up to September 18, the 81st anniversary of the Japanese invasion of China. When Chinese leaders contemplate the prospect of continued demonstrations that could interfere with their planned autumn leadership transition, they may come to regret their decision to use a “patriotic education” campaign to restore regime legitimacy in the wake of the 1989 anti-democracy crackdown. The kinds of ultra-nationalistic hate-fests that have taken place across the country – where protestors have carried banners proclaiming “Even if China is covered with graves, we must kill all Japanese!”, have smashed Japanese-branded automobiles and storefronts, and even attacked a car carrying Tokyo’s ambassador in Beijing – show levels of anger and lawlessness that are damaging China’s international image. Such developments can be traced back ultimately to the regime’s deliberate cultivation of a sense of wounded nationalism.
To regain the initiative, the Communist Party’s Propaganda Department recently issued instructions that the state-run media must stop reporting on protests over Japan’s purported misdeeds. Leading news outlets have carried op-eds in recent days describing the need for a “mature nationalism” that is patient and prioritizes national unity. Additionally, in response to State Department affirmations that the U.S. alliance with Japan covers all territories administered by Tokyo, Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the People’s Liberation Army Cai Yingting publicly warned the United States to stay out of any China-Japan dispute over the islands, a comment that received heavy coverage inside China. Furthermore, the PLA announced that it recently carried out an amphibious landing exercise – a step it has sought to frame as sending a message to Japan but one that may be more subtly intended to impress domestic audiences.
It remains to be seen whether such messages will satisfy demonstrators who are calling for hardline steps to be taken against Japan. If they do not, anti-riot police could begin to use force more frequently, as they did last month Dongguan in Southern China’s Guangdong Province. However, it is possible that at some point, anti-Japan protests could slip beyond the regime’s control, and Party leaders worry that mishandling such tensions could affect the regime’s legitimacy – and ultimately erode its grip on power.