Sunday, 26 August 2012

Events in East Asia, stakes and realities

Meaning in the region’s mishmash

In decoding the latest events in East Asia, it is important to know the stakes and the realities.

DAILY news reports span events with their highs, lows and in-betweens. As a whole, they suggest a world of randomly unconnected currents and irrationally contradictory events with insubstantial or unpredictable outcomes.

There may be times when the planet is like that, but most of the time it may look that way while being something else again. If not exactly a method in the madness, there is usually meaning in the mishmash.

That is why policymakers and their advisers have their work to do, acting proactively or retroactively. For sleuths, it is important to expose conspiracies without necessarily resorting to conspiracy theories.

In recent days alone, global society learned that Miss China won the Miss World contest in Ordos, Inner Mongolia. This was the second time that a Miss China won, and the fact that it happened in front of a home crowd made it that much more special.


Meanwhile at the intergovernmental level, China and the US established a Sino-US Partnership on Smoke-free Workplaces to restrict smoking and its consequences in public and private sector workplaces. Several such agreements involving governments and NGOs have emerged between China and the US in recent years.

In economics, much more continue to happen between East Asia and the rest of the world, spurred particularly by China’s spectacular growth profile. Despite ideological differences and occasional bumps over specific trade, investment or currency issues, the Chinese and US economies have never been more closely linked or interdependent, and increasingly so.

Periodic spats continue between countries across national borders, sometimes over where those borders should be. While they gain wider attention with diplomatic forays or military missions, in involving social, economic and political dimensions, these disputes become far more intractable.

The latest dispute to flare again over the week has been rival claims over the Pinnacle Islands in the East China Sea, which Japan calls the Senkaku, China calls the Diaoyu and Taiwan calls the Diaoyutai.

Earlier this month, a group of Japanese lawmakers and right-wing NGO members had planned a trip to the islands to reaffirm Japanese sovereignty as well as to commemorate Japanese victims of the Second World War. This followed spats between China and the Philippines, and Vietnam, earlier in the year over rival claims to other islands in the South China Sea.

Japan had already been administering the Pinnacles with its presence. The government of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda felt the nationalists’ trip would be unduly provocative and tried to stop it, earning the rebuke of nationalist groups and the right-wing mayor of Tokyo.

In the event, some 150 Japanese activists aboard 20 boats landed in the Pinnacles last Sunday. By then, Chinese activists from the Hong Kong-based Action Committee for Defending the Diaoyu Islands had landed on the Pinnacles’ biggest island four days before.

The activists were detained by Japanese authorities, who had earlier failed to dissuade them with water cannons and ramming their boat, Kai Fung No. 2. As Chinese protesters insisted on the activists’ release and Japanese nationalists demanded their imprisonment, Japan deported them.

Earlier in January, Hong Kong authorities had refused Kai Fung No. 2 permission to leave port “because the Marine Department had grounds to believe that the vessel would not be used for fishing and fishing-related purposes”. The boat’s owner is a known Chinese nationalist activist.

But during the week, Chinese activists on board the boat returned to Hong Kong to a public hero’s welcome. The governments in Beijing and Taipei protested when Japan detained the activists, but once they were freed, the general public in China and Taiwan took over the spotlight.

The governments involved wanted to show a measure of restraint without halting such activism altogether. It helps to keep popular support for official claims alive, without allowing it to overwhelm official policy or relations.

The Chinese activists had planted the flags of both China and Taiwan, symbolising a unity of the claims by the “two Chinas”. While previously both claims were handled separately by their respective governments, they lately appear to merge in relation to other countries.

The common misperception remains that Chinese communism is an evil that compounds differences with other countries. That classic ideological posture from the Cold War ill serves anyone in the present era.

As communist ideology wanes and the Chinese Communist Party’s grip nationwide recedes, the only framework that Beijing can access to mitigate the country’s multiple challenges is nationalism. And on the other side of the Taiwan Straits, the Kuomintang party in government is defined by Chinese nationalism.

If and when single party rule on the mainland ceases, a much more nationalist government is likely to emerge. A party in such a government would be more amenable to popular nationalist sentiment, while also less inclined to limit nationalist activism, creating new challenges for other countries.

China already has to confront multiple rival claims over territory with other countries. It behoves Chinese policymakers to minimise and streamline the issues for easier handling, such as by neutralising the dispute over sovereignty between Beijing and Taipei.

Until recent years, the Taiwan Straits and the South China Sea had been persistent flashpoints in East Asia. Now that cross-straits relations have improved, disputes in the South China Sea simmer while East China Sea territory is being contested again.

There is an apparent trade-off in flashpoint potential between sub-regions. China’s immediate neighbours have at the same time contributed to friction in the adjoining waters.

Two weeks ago, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak visited the Dokdo islands occupied by his country but which are also claimed by Japan. While there, Lee declared that the Japanese Emperor had to apologise to Koreans for Japan’s wartime misconduct before he could visit South Korea.

The Japanese Foreign Minister replied by calling South Korea’s presence in Dokdo an “illegal occupation”. The spat continued for weeks, with Seoul filing a formal protest against Tokyo two days ago.

However dramatic, these disputes are unlikely to cause a major conflagration. While China always looms larger because of size and potential, there are also opportunities amid the risks.

China’s historic transition is led by econo­mics, but not without social and political ramifications. One feature here is the transformation of the foreign policymaking elite.

Maoist China’s policymakers in the Foreign Ministry had long been typical party ideologues. But as its economy blossomed, a new array of inputs have come to constitute an elite sourced from both the private and government sectors.

Meanwhile, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has still been less amenable to change. It is still constitutionally required to serve in the defence of the nation without interfering politically, but there is a growing temptation to signal its political positions.

So far the party and the state have mitigated this by allocating bigger budgets for defence, while also keeping PLA pressure on policymaking at bay. A party or government more vulnerable to populist pressure or lobbying may have to give the military more leeway.

The challenge for other countries is to work constructively with the more progressive elements in China’s political establishment towards more agreeable foreign relations. But from some of the latest events in the region, that challenge may be very difficult to meet.

Behind The Headlines By Bunn Nagara

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