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|Japan and Chinese syndrome|
La Stampa - December 18, 2012
It felt a bit strange. On Sunday afternoon, from a video connection deep in the English countryside, I was transported to the other side of the world and also to my past, by taking part in a television discussion programme about general elections in a country in economic and political crisis—yet, no, this wasn’t Italy but Japan.
The first comment, by presenters of the programme on Japanese state television, NHK, was the most inaccurate: “The eyes of the world are on Japan”, they said. They are not: few people in Europe, at least, knew that Japan was holding a general election on Sunday, and even fewer cared. We have our own crises, both political and economic, to worry about, and Japan no longer fires up our imaginations in the way that it did when I lived there as a foreign correspondent, in the 1980s. Yet its election was quite dramatic, and does have some important messages for us in Europe.
The first message is that when a country has been in economic difficulties for 20 years, as Japan has been, just as Italy has, so politics can be extremely volatile. Three years ago, the party that had dominated Japanese politics for half a century, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), was humiliated in a general election, thrown out of office by a new, younger, seemingly more progressive party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). Pundits wrote that the LDP was finished. Now, three years later, the LDP has swept back into power in an even bigger landslide than the one it was defeated by in 2009. Silvio Berlusconi can no doubt take some reassurance from Japan’s result.
New and young is all very nice, the Japanese example shows, but if a government does not show competence, clarity and efficiency, especially in the face of an extraordinary disaster such as the tsunami that in March 2011 killed nearly 20,000 people, and the resulting nuclear accident at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant that killed no one but scared millions and cost billions, then it will be kicked out at the next opportunity.
The second message, however, is that single, popular issues such as the anti-nuclear sentiment are less important to voters than competence. For the LDP, which is now hugely powerful in Parliament, is the most pro-nuclear group in Japan, and is the party that can most justly be blamed for the excessively close and negligent relationship between the government and the nuclear industry which made the Fukushima accident possible.
There is, however, a third message which may help explain why competence and professionalism in the end convinced voters to give the LDP yet another chance. It is that the most powerful force in any election is fear. In the case of Japan’s 2012 election, there was some fear of continued economic decline, if the DPJ government’s incompetence and continual internal feuding were allowed to continue for much longer. But the main fear was that of China.
China is not about to invade or attack Japan. But during the past year the world’s new superpower has become increasingly assertive, even aggressive, about its historical territorial claims in the seas around its long coasts, notably the South China Sea and the East China Sea. Those claims look to us in Europe, thousands of miles away, as if they are rather absurd, since they are just about a lot of uninhabited rocks and reefs, though also about oil and gas resources under the ocean. It is tempting to think that the important of these disputes has been exaggerated, and that good sense will soon prevail and some sort of a sensible compromise will be reached.
That is not the way things feel in Asia, especially in small countries around the South China Sea such as the Philippines, and not even in a big country such as Japan. For it is clear to them that these territorial claims are not just about resources and they are not absurd. They are important to China for reasons both of national prestige and of military strategy. And by pressing its claims in a more and more hardline and assertive way, China is seeking to do what the Israelis do when they build new settlements in the occupied territories of the Palestinians: they are creating new facts on the ground, or in China’s case, on the sea.
Japan can see no obvious end to the Chinese pressure and the Chinese appetite for “new facts”. Two days before the general election, a Chinese government surveillance aircraft violated Japanese airspace over the disputed islands, the first time an official aircraft has done so since diplomatic relations between the two countries were restored in 1972. It is as if China is pointing out to Japan that the disputed islands cannot be defended, so it would be best if Japan just accepted that China is now in charge in the area and can do what it likes there.
This is of course unacceptable to Japan—which holds the disputed islands under the terms of the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty under which the second world war’s victors settled outstanding issues, and which had anyway held them since 1895, before which no one had claimed them, officially. Its DPJ government had been firm about the issue, but had a record of wobbliness under pressure. The LDP promised during its election campaign to take a tougher line. In the end, Japanese voters appear to have decided that however much they distrust the LDP for all its past corruption, they trust China even less.
This doesn’t mean that there will now be a deliberate confrontation between Asia’s two economic giants. But it does mean that both are likely to be uncompromising, which increases the risk of an accidental controntation far out in the East China Sea. If that happens, it will put the United States on an awkward spot, for under the US-Japan Security Treaty it is obliged to help defend Japanese territory if it is attacked.
It suits China that Japan now has a more nationalist, rather right-wing government. For while the truth is that it is China that has been aggressive, seeking to change the status quo in both the South China and East China Seas, its official, propaganda line has been that it is Japan that has caused this dispute. Now, it will use every opportunity to portray the new government as some sort of throwback to Japan’s militaristic past.
At the end of my NHK post-election TV discussion, all of the panellists were asked to write down one word or short phrase that they thought the new Japanese government should focus on. I was asked first, and I wrote the simple word “economy”, arguing that if the new government did not fix Japan’s economic problems, it would be unable to make progress on other fields too.
Next came the Chinese participant, a distinguished former ambassador called Wu Jianmin, a man who when young acted as the French interpreter for Prime Minister Zhou Enlai during the Mao era. He wrote “peaceful development”, saying that Japan’s government needed to focus on this and not cause any international problems. The implication was clever and clear: he was claiming that Japan was the aggressor, with a risk of returning to militarism. This is nonsense. But modern China is just as skilled at using propaganda as it was during the days of Chairman Mao.