Peter Jones: Renewed hostilities fuelled by oil
CHINA and Japan have a history of enmity but a rise in tension over disputed islands is more about resources.
Reading of current anti-Japanese protests in some Chinese cities, it is tempting to shrug shoulders in incomprehension and move on. That could be a mistake. At best, these are symptoms of a long-held and deeply-felt enmity; at worst, they could be harbinger of a much more serious dispute.
The proximate cause of the disturbances is even more baffling – five tiny uninhabited islands and three rocky outcrops about halfway between Taiwan and the southern Japanese islands of Okinawa. Currently they are possessions of Japan, which ignores the claims of both Taiwan and China to their ownership.
At the weekend, a few folk from a flotilla carrying about 150 Japanese people, described variously as activists or nationalists, landed on the islands. They didn’t do much apart from a lot of Japanese flag-waving and anthem-singing before the Japanese coastguard shooed them away. This was apparently a response to a similar smaller landing on the same islands a week ago by half a dozen Chinese nationalists from Hong Kong.
The reaction in China seems out of all proportion. According to news reports, protests involving thousands of people flared in dozens of cities. In one city, about 1,000 protestors wrecked a Japanese-made police car and ransacked a Japanese restaurant. Similar trashing of Japanese vehicles and shops took place elsewhere.
Why? Despite the fact that a good many Japanese companies have set up factories in China, employing lots of Chinese people, and trade between the two countries mostly benefits China, cultural factors tend to govern popular feelings between the two nations.
Many Chinese people, and there seems no getting away from this, deeply resent Japan. The resentment stems from a multiplicity of factors. At the apparently absurd level, even the name of Japan, represented as two characters which mean “sun-origin” and which we translate as “Land of the Rising Sun”, grates.
To see the sun apparently rising, or originating from Japan, you have to be west of the country, ie in China. It conveys the idea of Japanese superiority, that all the light (and the other meanings that light has, such as learning) that China enjoys emanates from Japan. Since Chinese civilisation is older, and has been at times much more advanced than Japan’s, you can see why there might be a problem.
This might be the kind of thing which could be laughed off, were it not for historical matters such as the massacre of Nanjing in 1937, when the Japanese army invaded and occupied much of the Chinese mainland. I say “massacre”, but I should acknowledge that whether or not there was a massacre and who committed it is hotly disputed.
The Chinese firmly believe that Japanese soldiers killed some 300,000 prisoners-of-war and civilians in and around the city of Nanjing, as well as committing multiple acts of rape.
But nationalist and revisionist historians in Japan dispute that, pointing out, for example, that the Chinese army had units of soldiers whose job was to kill any of their own troops who might be fleeing the battlefield.
The evidence, including accounts by foreigners in Nanjing at the time, sides with the Chinese view. The death toll may well have been a third lower, but the killing of those who had surrendered and the occupied constitutes a massacre whatever the numbers.
Nevertheless, the Japanese government continued to maintain that there was no massacre for decades, and when it did acknowledge that its soldiers had committed an atrocity, such apologies as have been made have been widely viewed as half-hearted and grudging.
To this cultural background for these territorial disputes, can be added an economic motive. The seabed between Japan and China, and southwards towards Indonesia are thought to contain huge resources of oil and gas, commodities which are in short supply in all east Asian countries.
You don’t need me to spell out the obvious – that any country with any territorial claim on these waters is anxious to pursue it, and equally those in possession are determined to maintain their hold.
Moreover, the dispute that flared at the weekend, over islands known as Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese is only one of half a dozen such disputes in these waters.
What nobody knows is just how hard the Chinese government, the really big boys who have the real power in this game, are willing to push their claims. The troubling element is that it has weaknesses which it may feel the need to shore up by quietly encouraging anti-Japanese protests.
The developed world’s slowdown is now affecting China. Its growth has averaged close to 11 per cent a year over the last decade, but now it looks as though the economy will struggle to hit the target of 7.5 per cent growth this year. While we in the west would give our eye teeth for that growth, growth dipping below 7 per cent means that millions of workers get laid off, causing unrest.
Hyping up an external enemy is, unfortunately, a tried and tested tactic of governments which are under domestic pressure.
Thus these protests, drawing attention away from domestic problems, look to suit the Chinese authorities who have a long history of encouraging nationalist sentiment.
What is problematic about these protests, however, is for how long and how successfully they divert attention from problems at home. These are beginning to be more manifest than in crowds of migrant workers trekking back to their countryside homes from the cities.
As in Spain and Ireland, reports now abound of empty housing blocks festooning suburban landscapes. Construction activity, which underpinned Chinese growth during the financial crisis and global recession, has slowed, steel mills are cutting production, and mining and transport firms are reporting losses.
In the previous recession, China kept its economy going by pumping huge sums into infrastructure development. But its financial resources to repeat the trick are now a bit more limited – local governments are not getting the tax revenues they used to from corporate and property taxes – and whether there will be any real returns from more capital investment looks dubious.
Talk amongst economists is now that China could well be in for a hard landing, ie growth stalling. And if that happens, its political rulers may well turn up the heat on simmering offshore territorial disputes. Given that a third of the world’s trade goes through these seas, that would a development with awful global ramifications.
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Saturday 25 May 2013
Temperature: 6 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 13 mph
Wind direction: West
Temperature: 9 C to 16 C
Wind Speed: 14 mph
Wind direction: South west