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Home > East Asia > 

China cannot ignore the Japanese
Paul Lin
1/18/2005

Recently, two opinion polls on Sino-Japanese relations were released.

According to the first survey released by Japan's Cabinet Office on Dec. 18, the percentage of respondents who said they felt friendly toward China fell 10.3 percentage points from a year ago to 37.6 percent, the lowest level since 1975, when such information began to be compiled.

The percentage of respondents who said they did not feel friendly toward China rose to 58.2 percent, while the number who thought that relations between Japan and China were satisfactory fell nearly 19 percentage points to 28 percent.

In the second survey, released by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in the middle of last month, questions about Chinese attitudes toward Japan showed that more than 40.2 of respondents "disliked" or "quite disliked" Japan, a more than 10-percent fall compared with figures compiled a few years ago, and only 28.5 percent of respondents said they "liked" or "quite liked" the Japanese.

But in opinion polls, the Chinese still possess a certain level of apprehension about expressing their opinions.

`Over the past two years, some of China's mainstream publications have published reasoned articles analyzing Sino-Japanese relations ... This means that China's media has moved through the initial, impetuous stage of a market-oriented economy and is beginning to be more responsible and liberal.'

The number of Chinese people who felt friendly toward Japan should therefore be more than what was reflected in the survey.

The first survey would have had a higher percentage of respondents who disliked China if it had been conducted after the November intrusion by a Chinese submarine into Japanese territorial waters.

The increase in the number of Japanese who said they did not feel friendly toward China and the decline in the number of Japanese who thought Sino-Japan ties were satisfactory are closely related to China's anti-Japanese propaganda.

In September 2003, for example, the orgies that a group of Japanese tourists allegedly participated in when visiting Zhuhai were seized upon by China as a "national disgrace" for Japan.

During last August's Asia Cup soccer tournament, China ignited a wave of anti-Japanese sentiment, causing disgruntled Chinese fans to act violently against Japanese fans attending the games.

Additionally, the two sides routinely bicker over the disputed Diaoyutai (Senkaku) islands, a supposedly oil-rich area.

Reflecting shifting public opinion over these incidents, Japan paints China as a hypothetical enemy in its latest national defense strategy.

It was at this juncture that Japan altered its China-leaning policy and issued a visitor's visa to former president Lee Teng-hui.

Although those who dislike Japan still outnumber those who like Japan, Chinese hostility toward Japan has in some ways diminished steadily despite incitement of anti-Japanese sentiment by the Chinese government and the media.

One interpretation of this is that some sections of the media have urged the public to calmly reflect on the Sino-Japanese relationship, and that both sides have recently made great strides in increasing non-political exchanges.

Over the past two years, some of China's mainstream publications have published reasoned articles analyzing Sino-Japanese relations and have given Japan much more extensive coverage than those who would prompt frenzied polemics on sensitive issues.

This means that China's media has moved through the initial, impetuous stage of a market-oriented economy and is beginning to be more responsible and liberal.

This may sound like something of an overstatement for China's media. The reason such "sensible" reporting has appeared is that Chinese Vice President Zeng Qinghong argued for a more pragmatic approach to Sino-Japanese relations.

His view was reflected in some of the "sensible" opinions expressed by Ma Licheng, the editor of the People's Daily.

But soon afterwards, "sensible" opinions were in retreat as a result of the intensifying power struggle between Chinese President Hu Jintao and his predecessor, Jiang Zemin.

Hu took an anti-Japanese position to attack Jiang, even allowing Diaoyutai activists to organize a number of ships to sail to the islands.

Still, I wonder how we should interpret the decline in anti-Japanese sentiment reflected in the survey.

One explanation might be that the more Chinese nationalism is stoked by the state, the less support it will receive.

This is clearly reflected in Sino-Japanese relations and even in the election campaign of US President George W. Bush: The Chinese government and media spared no effort in denigrating him, yet support for Bush from the Chinese public was fairly substantial.

Furthermore, hostility toward Taiwan has declined.

This can be seen in the more rational remarks posted on various Web sites.

Even some Taiwan-related think tanks have cautiously voiced differing opinions, which would have been unthinkable before.

But there have been no official or unofficial surveys on this subject because the topic is related to "unification."

There has been a subtle change in the Sino-Japanese relationship, and if China wishes to use historical issues to agitate for a war against Japan, it will find itself with fewer and fewer supporters.

On the contrary, China's provocation of Japan has intensified antagonism and aroused a sense of danger in the Japanese.

Japan's plan to revise its Constitution allowing a greater military in world affairs has gradually won over the support of the Japanese. Even the US has voiced support for Japan in this respect.

The Japanese government does not take orders from China. This is difficult for China, with its authoritarian government, to comprehend.

In fact, almost every Japanese prime minister has paid homage at the Yasukuni Shrine, which has never failed to elicit an angry response from Beijing.

Yet how China reacts depends on the extent of the fuss that it intends to cause. In other words, whether or not it wants to incite anti-Japanese sentiment, the political setting at different periods is crucial.

Japan, therefore, has not taken China's objections too seriously.

Taiwan and China are not the only states involved in cross-strait issues; the security of Japan is also challenged because of this impasse.

Some analysts have interpreted the US-Japan Guidelines as requiring the US to be present if war breaks out in the Taiwan Strait.

So it is not wise for China to escalate tension with Japan at this juncture, because this might force the US and Japan to take sides with Taiwan, further frustrating China's attempts to isolate it.

China's long-term goal is to expand militarily and break through US-controlled territory and move into the western Pacific. To please the Chinese military, Hu has to display an ambition to do this.

The cross-strait impasse cannot avoid regional ramifications. This gives Taiwan the opportunity to use a strategy of flexible alignment to place itself in the most advantageous international position and ensure its safety.

Paul Lin is a commentator based in New York.

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