China provoking rise of Japan’s hawks

The Sydney Morning Herald, 27 November 2012

Isaac Newton wasn’t thinking about Chinese assertiveness when he wrote his famous third law of physics – that to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

But it does seem to be at work in the power politics of the Asia-Pacific region. In 2010, a rising China decided to push with new assertiveness its claims to territories claimed by other countries. And the other great powers of the region are starting to push back.

First it was the US. President Barack Obama’s ”pivot” to Asia was a direct push back against China. Now Japan is showing some signs of pushing back, too.

The announcement that Japan’s two most popular politicians are joining forces to create a new political party is a potential turning point in the postwar history of the Asia-Pacific region.

Shintaro Ishihara, a long-serving governor of Tokyo, stood down from his post to forge a ”third force” in Japanese politics in partnership with the mayor of Osaka, Toru Hashimoto. The creation of their Japan Restoration Party was announced 10 days ago.

Their stated aim? ”If Japan keeps going like this, it will sink into a pit and die,” Ishihara said.

He promises the revival of an economy that has been stagnant for two decades and the recovery of national pride. The choice of the word ”restoration” is very deliberate – a reference to the Meiji Restoration, which transformed Japan from a backward feudal state into a modern Westernised power.

Both men are anti-China hawks and controversial nationalists who advocate that Japan abandon its postwar ”peace constitution” and conduct a major rearming.

Not that Japan is unarmed. Despite the wording of its US-imposed constitution renouncing the right to maintain any armed forces whatsoever, and despite a relatively small defence budget, Japan already has the world’s fourth-biggest navy and top-tier access to US military technology.

In recent years, Ishihara and Hashimoto have expressed support for Japan to arm itself with nuclear weapons, an alarming prospect for many Japanese and for some of its neighbours. A leading South Korean daily, The Dong-A Ilbo, expressed alarm at their ”right-wing extremist ideology”.

Seoul has reason to worry. South Korea has its own territorial dispute with Japan and a bitter history of Japanese invasion and occupation.

Ishihara, in particular, is spoiling for a fight with China. The 80-year-old former novelist, one of Japan’s most notorious neo-nationalists, in 2010 likened China’s tactics in pressuring Tokyo over a territorial dispute to mafia thuggery.

When Beijing tightened its exports to Japan of rare earths, essential in the manufacture of electronic components, Ishihara said: ”What China is doing is very similar to what organised crime groups do to expand their turf.”

He despises any Japanese prime ministers who have ever made any concessions to Beijing.

”Japan could become the sixth star on China’s national flag” unless it stood up to Beijing, he has said. He has argued that Japan ”should not hesitate” to go to war against China.

And this year, in the most antagonistic move against China by any Japanese officeholder in modern times, Ishihara sought to buy, in the name of the Tokyo regional government, a group of islands claimed by China. Ishihara proposed to build on them.

The so-called islands are really a useless clutch of eight large uninhabited rocks. They’re known as the Senkaku Islands in Japan and the Diaoyu in China. Their value lies in the fact that their owner can claim maritime sovereignty and economic rights to seabed resources, which apparently includes oil.

The islands were owned by a private Japanese citizen; Ishihara moved to buy them and develop them. It was an act that had no legitimate purpose. It was designed as pure provocation of Beijing.

To head him off, the Japanese national government stepped in and acquired the islands. Its intention was to neutralise Ishihara. The government of the Prime Minister, Yoshihiko Noda, said it has no plans to develop them. Ishihara had been thwarted.

But by nationalising the islands, Japan inadvertently sent China’s government – and its people – into a rage. This was the source of the most recent flare-up that has damaged the economies of both countries.

What are the prospects of the Japan Restoration Party? Japan is heading to a snap election on December 16. A Kyodo News poll two days ago ranked the party second, behind the opposition Liberal Democrats but ahead of the ruling Democratic Party.

It cannot hope to form a government by itself – the party is so new it has had scant time to organise. It has said it will field candidates for only half the directly elected seats.

Yet with no party likely to be able to form a majority, this could well be enough to make the Japan Restoration Party a key member of a coalition government.

Ishihara’s latest provocation of China was his proposed alliance between Japan and two of the countries most active in territorial disputes with China, Vietnam and the Philippines.

He proposed keeping the US alliance as well: ”But in regard to the encroachment by China on territorial waters, Japan shares common issues with Vietnam and the Philippines and could form an alliance with these nations on this matter.”

Hashimoto and Ishihara are taking advantage of a growing disenchantment among Japan’s voters with either of the major parties. But China, through its nationalist assertiveness, might be providing them with a new purpose and platform.

It would be a profound historical blunder if Beijing’s decision to energise and enlarge its territorial claims turns out to have not only alarmed its neighbours and reinvigorated US commitment to the region – it has already managed to achieve these unintended consequences – but to have remilitarised its historical enemy Japan as well.

The Japanese people favour their current constitution and oppose nuclear armament. But China is giving the neonationalists an opening and they are taking it.

In the 1980s, the first prime minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, once counselled against then-prevalent 1980s complaints against Japan’s commercial success.

”The Japanese are good merchants but they are better warriors,” he said. And he didn’t think Japan’s underlying warrior prowess was dead, only dormant. China should be careful it does not push its neighbours too far.

Peter Hartcher is the international editor.