Wars can start over the smallest of provocations. The severed ear of Robert Jenkins prompted nine years of Anglo-Spanish hostilities in the mid-18th century, for instance, while El Salvador squared up to Honduras in a four-day conflict in 1969 after a particularly unpleasant football match.
So onlookers have been following the unseemly row over a few uninhabited outcrops in the South China Sea (the Diaoyu Islands, known as the Senkakus in Japanese) with growing trepidation, especially as it spilled over into anti-Japanese demonstrations on Sunday in a number of Chinese cities.
The protests were launched after a landing by Japanese nationalists on the islands, which China, Japan and Taiwan all claim, but which Japan controls.
In a by-now predictable tit-for-tat, the Japanese action was itself a reaction to a landing last week by Chinese activists who planted the Chinese and Taiwanese flags (although the latter was airbrushed out of photos published in the Chinese newspapers).
The authorities routinely crack down on large demonstrations, so the fact that these protests were able to proceed unhindered was taken as a sign of state support for the surge in anti-Japanese sentiment.
Protesters vented their spleens burning Japanese flags and overturning Japanese-made cars. In the city of Chengdu the protests led to the shutdown of a Japanese-owned department store, as well as disruption for the clothing shop Uniqlo.
But Beijing likely won’t want the angry mood to get any worse. An editorial in the sharply patriotic Global Times even strayed from its normally shrill tone to call for calm: “The Chinese people need to be clear that China cannot retrieve the Islands now. This would mean a large-scale war, which is not in China’s interests.”
But that leaves the government in a difficult position. Many ordinary Chinese are calling for a more muscular approach over the Diaoyus and disdaining the passivity of their leaders. For example, on the popular Tianya forum one hothead wrote: “China is like a clown on the international stage. The Chinese navy is a ceremonial navy. No wonder it’s looked down on by people across the whole world.”
Others are calling for a boycott of Japanese goods, although here there is more hesitation. In an online survey by Sina Weibo about 29,000 people said no to a boycott, while 23,000 said yes. “The state isn’t boycotting, why the heck should I,” wrote one respondent. “If our goods were as good as theirs, then we could do without Japanese products,” suggested another.
The latest bout of trouble over the Diaoyu Islands, which translate prosaically into English as the Fishing Islands, began in April, when the Governor of Tokyo announced that the municipal government was planning to buy the rocky outcrops from a Japanese family that says that it owns them (see WiC159).
Tempers then boiled over once again last week when two Japanese ministers visited the controversial Yasukuni Shrine that honours Japan’s war dead (the occasion for doing so: the 67th anniversary of Japan’s capitulation in World War II).
Most Chinese believe that nearly 70 years after the conflict, Japan is still insufficiently apologetic for its wartime brutality.
More confrontation may be around the corner. Japan will upgrade its Coast Guard fleet to fend off future Chinese landings, its own media reports, with larger vessels equipped with stronger water cannon and other capabilities.
Not that Hu Xijin, the editor of the Global Times, was worried by the news. Instead he lauded China’s rising power on his weibo. That Japanese coastguard vessels “use water cannon and not real cannon is because of China’s national strength, which awes and blesses,” Hu advised. His newspaper agreed. Ultimately, “China has no intention of engaging in a military clash with Japan over the Diaoyu,” it suggested. “But China can suppress Japan’s control gradually until the trend reverses.”
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