Tokyo walks tightrope as elderly Chinese 'await' war : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread


Tokyo walks tightrope as elderly Chinese 'await' war

TOKYO - The simmering tension between the United States and China over the collision of an American spy plane and a Chinese fighter jet is turning out to be Japan's worst diplomatic nightmare.

"Good relations between the two major powers are imperative for Japan, which is always walking a nervous tightrope between the two," said Tomoo Marukawa, a senior China expert at the Institute of Developing Economies.

Japan does not want to take sides if the situation worsens. Analysts explain that this touchy issue has Japan torn between maintaining good relations with China, a traditional rival as an Asian power, and its loyalties to Washington, whose decades-long security ties with Tokyo are crucial to Japan. The Japan-US Security Pact is the pillar of Tokyo's foreign policy.

Mindful of the fix that the standoff over the plane is putting Japan in, senior government leaders have been pleading with Washington to settle the dispute as fast as it can and amicably. Foreign Minister Yohei Kono called on US State Secretary of State Colin Powell to settle the issue as smoothly as possible, and to take care not to damage relations with China.

The Japanese media has warned of the negative effects on Sino-Japanese relations if the tension is not resolved quickly. "[The] incident, if it blossoms into yet another thorny issue between Washington and Beijing, could put a strain on Japanese and U S efforts to maintain their security in the region," the Yomuiri Shimbun, Japan's largest daily, said last week.

While Japan officially supports Washington's stance on the issue, analysts explain Tokyo will be faced with a dilemma if the situation deteriorates. Japan has invested heavily in its relationship with its giant Asian neighbor China in a bid to forge a smooth working partnership, point out experts. Hiroko Maeda, a China analyst at P H P Research Institute, a private think tank, says current China-Japan relations have departed from their old reliance on Japan's economic support for Beijing.

For instance, China's rapid economic growth has encouraged Tokyo to reduce by 3 percent bilateral assistance starting April 2001, and move to a more mature partnership. Both sides have agreed to upgrade security talks. China was the top recipient of Japanese overseas assistance last year, receiving US$1.7 billion in heavily subsidized loans.

But while economic relations have improved, Maeda points out that things on the political front are not as stable. A bone of contention remains Japan's colonization of northern China 64 years ago, as well the "Nanjing Massacre" that China says left 300,000 ordinary Chinese dead. Chinese President Jiang Zemin lashed out at Japan this month, when Tokyo decided to accept history textbooks that water down Japan's brutalities during its occupation. More recently, Japan's plans to support Bush plan to build a National Missile Defense system has raised the ire of China, which sees the scheme as boosting Washington's support for Taiwan.

A Chinese government official was quoted as commenting on this matter: "The bottom line is that every time Tokyo and Washington strengthen their alliance, China's national interest is damaged one way or another."

Naoki Usui, a defense writer, says Japanese planes also conduct regular intelligence gathering just as the US spy plane was doing before the collision, which forced it to make an emergency landing at a Chinese naval air base in Hainan island. Washington and Tokyo also share security information they get. "This situation is not something Japan wants to give up," Usui explains. "Japan believes its security pact with the US maintains the [security] balance in Asia."

The US plane was gathering intelligence in waters that surround Beijing's sea strategy, around Japan and Taiwan, which China considers a renegade province, as well as island chains like the Spratlys and the Paracels that are also claimed by several Southeast Asian countries.

The US dispute with China has, however, raised some internal issues in Japan as well. Activists opposed to the presence of American bases in Japan point out that the dispute has highlighted the same reticence displayed by Tokyo when it comes to conflicts with or offenses involving US marines stationed in Japan. Others say Bush's refusal to apologize to Beijing reminds them of the time in February when the Japanese public demanded a similar reaction from Washington after a US submarine rammed into a Japanese fishing vessel off Hawaii, killing six passengers.

Says Maeda: "Today's situation is different in the sense that with China it is a military clash and evidence is pointing to the fault being on the Chinese plane. Still, Bush's stance does not go well with the ordinary Japanese."

Meanwhile, elderly residents of downtown Beijing have a new, exhilarating topic to mull over in the evenings, when they get together in parks and on street corners and take a stroll after dinner. The topic is hot and awesome - the coming war with the United States.

"It is time to give a lesson to the Americans," Lao Zhang, a retired man in his late sixties tells his audience in the neighborhood of Tian Tan or "Temple of Heaven". "The US always fancies itself as a world policeman and pokes its nose into everything. We can't let little Bush [a reference to US President George W Bush] make fun of us for the next four years."

"If [President] Jiang Zemin wavers once more, the students may take to the streets again," warns fellow retiree Wang Hui. Excitement bubbles in his voice as he recalls the stone-throwing and rioting in front of the Untied States embassy after an American plane on a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato) mission bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in May 1999.

"What is this all about? Have they struck our embassy again?" asks Ren Chunlan, a middle-aged woman who works as a nanny for a foreign family. She immediately gets a rebuke from everyone: "What Chinese are you? Don't you know the Americans have killed our pilot and entered Chinese air space?"

This and other versions of the plane saga which is unfolding between China and the United States circulate in abundance among average Beijing residents, who otherwise find little excitement in their domestic political life.

As the stand-off over the spy plane between the two sides continues, the issue of apology becomes loaded with special importance. Here, the difference between the American and Chinese political cultures comes fully into the spotlight. While Washington shuns issuing an apology because of its legal implications, Beijing sees the apology as the only possible way of proving moral quality. The US bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade was felt very much as a loss of face here and then US president Bill Clinton had to apologize in person.

After the United States issued an apology and compensated the Chinese side for the damages, the incident of the embassy bombing should have been considered a closed chapter in the US-China history. Yet a sense of anger over the Belgrade bombing is still acutely felt here, and the tough line taken by Chinese leaders on the plane crash is a reflection of their determination not to repeat the experience of 1999.

At that time, the communist leadership was accused of initial weakness and conciliatory rhetoric which brought protesters out on the streets. They charged that the government was giving in to "imperialist pressure" in order to keep its foreign trade relations stable.

Even these days, despite the bellicose rumblings of many, few ordinary people truly believe the spy plane stand-off would lead to a war. "I don't think there would be a war after this incident either," says Lang Haohe, a Beijing resident in his 40s. "Chinese leaders want to strengthen the economy first and make the country powerful. Only when China is a world economic power, they can think of really confronting the Americans."

Still, getting an apology from the US side over the crash incident would mean gaining the moral high ground over the new Bush administration. Just how the two countries handle this latest development could provide clues to how they will cooperate during the Bush administration.

But there may well be implications going beyond US-China ties. China watchers here say that granting the Chinese side an apology would only reinforce Beijing's long-standing claim to sovereignty over much of the South China Sea.

The US claims that its EP-3 plane was well into international airspace and about 120 kilometers from Hainan island, when it was intercepted by two Chinese fighters, one of which collided with the American plane and subsequently crashed.

Under international law, there is a 22-km limit zone extending off a country's coast which defines the territorial waters and airspace above which it has jurisdiction. But Beijing appears to be asserting that the incident took place in Chinese air space. China has long claimed a full 200-mile (about 320 km) economic zone around its bid for the disputed archipelagos of the Spratlys and Paracels, which are also claimed by several South-east Asian countries.

"An apology from the US side would mean legitimizing Beijing's claims over the disputed areas in the South China Sea," says one Asian diplomat. "I see it as detrimental to the stability of the whole Southeast Asia."

(Inter Press Service)

-- Martin Thompson (, April 09, 2001

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