Japanese and Chinese nationalists are willing to bet their countries’ futures
for the sake of national pride and a handful of uninhabited islands in the sea,
but it may be the global weapons-making industry that walks away with the
Michael Penn: This is Michael Penn with The Real News in Tokyo. Much of the world has been surprised in recent weeks by political bickering between the worldâ€™s second- and third- largest economies, China and Japan, over a group of five tiny islands where nobody even lives. In spite of the apparent insignificance of the territories involved, they have engendered passions which spread a crisis throughout East Asia.
Narration: The intensification of the dispute over what Japan calls the Senkaku Islands and China calls the Diaoyu Islands was triggered by a local government leaderâ€”Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishiharaâ€”in April when he announced that he would use the funds of the Tokyo metropolitan government to purchase three of the five islands from their private Japanese owner.
For his part, Governor Ishihara explained he was only responding to what he saw as threats and provocations from China:
Shintaro Ishihara, Governor of Tokyo: In February, China declared openly its intention to break Japanâ€™s control of the islands / They said they were going to do this and were making preparations / This was like a thief making open declaration that he would break into your house / This was an expression of their national will published in the Peopleâ€™s Daily / We must carefully lock our doors against these thieves.
Narration: Unlike the majority of Japanese conservatives, Ishihara also chafes at the control that Washington exercises over Tokyo.
Shintaro Ishihara, Governor of Tokyo: I donâ€™t like this!â€¦ (laughter)â€¦ Japan has been completely tamed by America since our defeat in the war until today / To be frank, we have been like the mistress of the United States / I think that the American government also sees us in this way.
Michael Penn: But if Shintaro Ishihara makes it perfectly clear that he doesnâ€™t like China and sees it as the heart of the regional problem, voices in the Chinese media makes it clear that the antipathy and sense of threat is mutual.
Yu Bin in China Daily: â€œSino-Japanese relations have nosedived since hawkish Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara unveiled his plan to “purchase” Diaoyu Islands from their “private owner” five months ago. For Beijing, the highly charged “privatization-nationalization” political soup Ishihara and the Japanese central government have cooked is eerily reminiscent of the early 1930s when right-wing extremists hijacked Japan’s foreign policy as a restless Japan drifted toward wars, one more treacherous than the other. One wonders how a local politician – who is 80 years old and should have been overwhelmed by the administrative burden of the one of the world’s largest metropolitan areas – gets the time to maneuver himself into the driver’s seat of Japan’s foreign policy.â€
Narration: Japanese nationalists make mirror-image arguments, claiming that history reveals mainland China as a territorial aggressor.
Eiji Kosaka, Tokyo Arakawa Ward Assemblyman: That these islands are Japanese territories is something that is 100% certain / but China has been, as usual, attacking the Senkaku Islands / And these attacks from China have just been getting worse and worse / Theyâ€™ve been attempting to grab other islands from Vietnam and the Philippines / and in exactly the same way they are attacking us now.
Narration: Discarding Japanâ€™s pacifist constitution and the remilitarization of the nation and its culture is also seen by Japanese nationalists as necessary steps.
Eiji Kosaka, Tokyo Arakawa Ward Assemblyman: I think that it is just common sense in the world, but Japanese have lost this kind of common sense / We must be a nation that does what is natural. The people must act in this natural way / Japan must become a nation that always acts with resolve.
Narration: Some analysts in the American media are beginning to predict that the diplomatic confrontation is likely to lead to military conflict.
Michael Auslin in The Wall Street Journal: â€œâ€¦it is naÃ¯ve to assume the two sides will successfully avoid coming to blows. Sure, both Tokyo and Beijing may currently be playing chicken over the East China Sea and may not have any intention of sparking hostilities. But the way nationalist passions have been stoked in both countries, particularly China, the possibilities of accident or miscalculation are rising.â€
Narration: While most analysts do not agree that Japan and China will come to blows in the military sense over this island confrontation, it is widely acknowledged that each countryâ€™s domestic politics have made it extremely difficult to find a path back to normal diplomatic relations.
Michael Cucek, Political Analyst: The real problem here is that both countriesâ€”and to a certain extent Taiwanâ€”have relatively unstable situations domestically. In the case of China we have a leadership transition going on; and during a leadership transition there is a period of time where various different actors have a certain amount of leeway to redefine the status quo, to try to push their agendas to be the new policies of the country. In the case of Japan we have a long-term fight between a rightwing which wants a more militarized Japan and the general populace, which is generally not interested in this agenda at all.
Narration: Japan and China are major trading partners and, in an objective sense, the diplomatic confrontation over these tiny and uninhabited islands is a lose-lose proposition for both nations, as an article in Japanâ€™s Asahi Shinbun recognizes:
Keiko Yoshioka in the Asahi Shinbun: â€œChinaâ€™s economy could take a severe beating if Japanese companies falter in the escalating standoff over sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands. In a nutshell, China needs Japanese companies to keep unemployment in check and to promote development in rural areas, particularly as its economy is slowing.â€
Narration: And yet, independent analysts note that even if the East Asian nations as a whole stand to lose out this conflict, there are always those who stand to stand to benefit as the overall political situation spirals downward.
Michael Cucek, Political Analyst: You can pretty much identify three different groups as winners: hardliners in China; hardliners in Japan; and, to a certain extent, arms manufacturers. These three groups are going to profit; they have an incentive to see tensions between Japan and China.
Narration: Nationalist politics is allowing many groups that have previously been marginalized to play a larger role in their countryâ€™s lives.
Michael Cucek, Political Analyst: There are certain individuals and groupsâ€”particularly rightwingersâ€”who want there to be tension because it attracts followers to them, it attracts funding to them, and it attracts, at the end of the day, power to them. They will continue to push this agenda even as the peopleâ€”and I speak for both the Chinese people and the Japanese peopleâ€”are not terribly interested in going to war or even having minor skirmishes over these islands.
Narration: And from outside the nation too, there are those who find a way to profit.
Michael Cucek, Political Analyst: The arms manufacturers have a relatively difficult time. Peace is not good for themâ€¦ What they are looking for is a way of justifying extremely expensive weapons systems, and the only way they can justify them is an imaginary, high-level conflict between Japan and Chinaâ€¦ These kinds of incidents between China and Japan help create the atmosphere that makes it politically possible for very expensive systems to be sold.
Narration: But with the Japanese and Chinese economies linked through hundreds of billions of dollars in tradeâ€”whether they like it or notâ€”there is also a strong incentive for the return to business as usual. This is Michael Penn for the Real News in Tokyo.