Lands of Rising Tension

These days, a visit to Beijing and any major Chinese city evokes thoughts of face masks, diesel-smelling air and smoggy skies. When I arrived in Beijing two weekends ago as part of the Aspen Institute of India’s delegation to the fourth India-China Strategic Dialogue, I was greeted by clear blue skies, clean air and bright sunlight. And it continued for three days.

Even the proudest of Beijingers, however, admitted this was a fluke. “Only because the wind is blowing strongly these days,” said a retired Chinese diplomat. “Not like this normally.” Supposedly a potential number two at the US Embassy in Beijing had turned down what would otherwise have been a plum position for the sake of his or her children. “Too many coal burning factories and mines around the city,” said the ex-diplomat. “We keep closing them down, but still more smoke comes.”

Reduced Rivalry

Territorial tensions between China and Japan are part of the foreign policy firmament of Northeast Asia. Outwardly, things are easing up a bit. The Chinese public is back to buying Japanese cars and brands. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has carefully refrained from visiting the controversial Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo.

But privately, neither the Chinese nor the Japanese have much good to say about each other. The dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands is far from over. However, Xi Jinping and Abe both have big-time domestic agendas that require the ripping apart and putting together of large parts of their respective economies. That can’t be done if your warships and fighter aircraft are buzzing those of another country.

However, the Japanese believe Beijing will be back to using them as a whipping boy sooner rather than later. The Chinese say that of their three live-wire territorial disputes — the Senkaku Islands, the South China Sea, and the border with India — the last, in their view, would be the easiest to resolve. Or at least quiet down.

A 180-strong Japanese business delegation went to China last Tuesday, the first after a year’s gap, signalling business as usual. Japanese businessmen in Tokyo were skeptical: “We’ll see how much actual new business happens because of this.” Notably, Xi was too busy to meet them.

Of course, Beijing this week announced an air defense identification zone covering the disputed islands. In theory, this would require any foreign airplane to warn Chinese air traffic control if they were passing through. This would be a symbolic acceptance of some sovereign control over that airspace, I presume, though the world is filled with overlapping ADIZs, and their meaning in international law is vague at best. But symbols count, and that presumably is why Beijing announced it.

In keeping with their policy of trying to keep the India border cold, Chinese officials were quick to note that such an ADIZ could not be established on the Indian border. We are relieved.

Aid and Counteraid

As far as everyone’s favorite Chinese nationalist newspaper, the Global Times, is concerned, Japan is still Enemy Nation. The past two weeks saw several media broadsides over the provision of aid to typhoon-ravaged Philippines and Southeast Asia in general. China, which recently displaced the Philippines from the Scarborough Reef in the South China Sea, provided a pittance of aid to the island country after it was recently hit by a super-typhoon. Foreign media pointed out that the Swedish company Ikea donated more. Belatedly, Beijing upped the money and announced the sending of rescue teams. Global Times quietly ignored the original Chinese miserliness, criticized Manila for bad disaster management, and printed a cartoon of Abe dangling aid on a fishing angle to foreign countries.

The Japanese prime minister recently made a quick visit to Laos and Cambodia, the ASEAN states seen as closest to Beijing, to spread a few goodies. A Japanese diplomat who had gone said Laos and Cambodia were less sold to China than they were committing to their policy of “going where the wind blows.” China Daily‘s page one lead: Abe busy in ASEAN blitz aimed at Beijing. It must have hurt Beijing when the Wall Street Journal‘s Asian lead story was about Japanese aid arriving in the Philippines. Subhead: US and China also send stuff.

India sent one of its new C-130s with 20 tonnes of relief, but no one noticed.

A Kennedy in Tokyo

Talks last week with the Chinese ended in time for the Aspen Institute’s India-Japan Strategic Dialogue to start in Tokyo. The delegation arrived just a day after the new US ambassador, Caroline Kennedy, presented her credentials to much Japanese media interest. Hard to think of any ambassador’s arrival getting minute-by-minute television coverage in India, but perhaps it was because New Delhi has never had a quasi-celebrity as an envoy.

Kennedy’s arrival unfortunately coincided with the 50th anniversary of her father’s assassination. So televisions in Japan would alternate footage of her going to the Japanese emperor with ads for documentaries on JFK’s death.

However, Japanese foreign policy types were unenthused. Kennedy is politically close to Barack Obama, but the Abe government has been less than pleased with the degree of support they have received from Washington during their travails with China. The message from the US, sometimes in front of the Chinese, has been: You may be our treaty ally, but don’t get the Chinese angry. Chinese commentators declared Kennedy to be part of a containment strategy.

Abenomics and After

There is a sneaking suspicion Abe is not completely averse to having a tense relationship with China, at least within limits. After all, his overall goal is a national rejuvenation of his country across the board. Japan has been in a stupor now for 20 years, so any number of pricks and pins will be needed to revive it.

The cornerstones of his reforms are economic reforms, dubbed “Abenomics.” The first two bits of his reforms have been done: printing lots of money and raising sales tax next year. But the so-called “third arrow” of reforms, a grab-bag of regulatory and corporate reforms, will be the difficult part.

Some Japanese called the stimulus that will be provided by Japan’s winning the right to host the Olympic Games in 2020 is the “fourth arrow.” The more economics-minded, however, say the missing facet is a wage or income policy — in purchasing power terms, the average Japanese has seen his income fall for several years. It won’t help that April next year will see the present uptick in Japan’s growth, thanks to monetary easing, go into reverse as the higher sales tax kicks in.

Across the Sea of Japan, Xi has an even more difficult task in implementing the reforms that the Third Plenum of the Communist Party endorsed. A diplomat in Beijing said Xi is good at slogans, but he is without a faction base in the party and has to contend with some serious vested interests.

At least Japan is unconcerned about the prospect of the US Federal Reserve rolling back its quantitative easing policy. “Tapering won’t affect us,” said a Japanese economist. “Anyway, I don’t think it will happen.” Others argued any tapering would only weaken the yen — and improve Japan’s trade position.

Shrine Too Far

One free afternoon afforded a trip to the Yasukuni Shrine and its controversial museum. The shrine, for those who don’t know, is a major source of contention between Japan and China — and other countries occupied by Imperial Japan during World War II.

The objections arise from the fact that the 2.4 million names of war dead honored at the shrine going back to the 19th century include some pretty heinous Japanese military types. The shrine’s Shinto priests argue the complex’s various shrines commemorate the war dead full stop; what they did and how they died is irrelevant. So there is even a shrine to Japanese who rebelled against their emperor during the country’s civil wars. There is a shrine for foreign soldiers who fought against the Japanese and died. There is a shrine to animals that died in military service, to widows who had to raise children without fathers, and every conceivable form of wartime suffering. About 45,000 Taiwanese and Koreans are also commemorated, even though their descendants have objected.

One Indian gets a special token. Judge Radhabinod Pal, the only judge on the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal who concluded the Japanese were not guilty of war crimes, has a plaque in his honor. Pal’s argument: the Japanese army did awful things, but these were being judged by an ex-post facto law and in a kangaroo court put together by General Douglas MacArthur. Some historians have argued the Tokyo tribunal was such a travesty that it is the one reason the Japanese refuse to apologize for World War II.

I sympathize with the Yasukuni Shrine’s argument: it is clearly a religious shrine for anyone who died and suffered in wartime, irrelevant of circumstances. Religion is about going beyond the legal and human — hence why the greatest religious figures argued for turning the other cheek and universal forgiveness.

But the museum, even though mostly in Japanese and so incomprehensible to me, clearly had an interpretation of history that can be questioned. History is written by winners, but the losers in this case felt they could do their version as well. One bit I could read was a brief account of the battle of Kohima, the only battle where Japanese troops fought on Indian soil, and it clearly glossed over how badly the Japanese fared.

Copyright © 2013 the Hindustan Times.

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