Internal Tensions Fuel Dispute

Nationalist protests over China's island row with Japan deflect attention from domestic problems, analysts say.
2012-10-05
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A riot policeman directs protesters in Chengdu as they march carrying an anti-Japanese banner and a Mao portrait, Sept. 16, 2012.
AFP

As Beijing maintains its international rhetoric over its claims to a disputed island chain in the East China Sea, analysts said the standoff with Japan could have more to do with internal Chinese politics than with matters of international law.

An opinion article penned by the Chinese ambassador to the U.K. has reiterated Beijing's claim that the purchase of the islands—known as Diaoyu in China and as Senkaku in Japan, which controls them—by the Japanese government is invalid.

Writing in the U.K.'s Daily Telegraph newspaper on Wednesday, ambassador Liu Xiaoming cited historical documents as proving that the islands are China's territory.

Tokyo's purchase of the islands from a private owner in September sparked days of violent anti-Japanese protests in major Chinese cities and slashed the turnover of Japanese auto-makers.

Mitsubishi Motor and Mazda reported a plunge in China auto sales for September, when the riots swept across China, prompting many to call for a nationwide boycott of Japanese goods.

According to Japanese media reports, Toyota's China sales were also hit, but the company declined to confirm the reports. Mazda said on Friday that some of its dealerships were damaged during the riots.

Domestic politics

But analysts say more factors may be at work in the corridors of the ruling Chinese Communist Party than are visible to public eye.

"I think that there are a lot of factors here that have to do with domestic politics," Hu Ping, editor of the U.S.-based online magazine, Beijing Spring, told a panel discussion on RFA's Mandarin service.

"China has a lot of territorial disputes with its neighbors right now, and many of them are far more significant in terms of strategic position and area than the Diaoyu," Hu said. "China's claim to [the other disputed islands] also has far more basis in law."

"Why is there only a movement afoot in China to protect the Diaoyu, and not to protect anywhere else?"

Leadership change

Hu said the movement seemed designed to deflect popular anger away from the Party ahead of a crucial leadership transition next month, and onto a more convenient target.

"It's really a bit ridiculous. I think that the Diaoyu campaign takes its lead from the official mood, and it only seeks to protect that which the government wants it to protect," he said.

According to Professor Xia Ming—a political science teacher at the College of Staten Island in New York, said he also believed the transition of power from incumbent president Hu Jintao and premier Wen Jiabao to the next generation of Chinese leaders was the key factor in the heightened tension with Japan.

"I think [Beijing] is proceeding according to the dictates of domestic politics," Xia said. "Right now, we have the 18th Party Congress and the leadership succession, and some sources are saying that the military wants to use this as an excuse to change the balance of power."

"There are other sources which are saying that President Hu Jintao wants to use the tension as an excuse to extend his term as chairman of the Central Military Commission," he said, referring to a post which is traditionally held concurrently with that of president and general secretary of the Party.

"This would extend his hold on power."

Deflecting anger

Xia said the wave of nationalistic anger that swept China in September was a convenient way to deflect anger and criticism of the government amid a widespread economic slowdown.

"They want to find a scapegoat to channel everyone's anger," he said.

Tensions between China and Japan, Asia's two biggest economies, have been running high following several days of major protests in cities across China, and with Japanese and Chinese patrol boats gathering in the waters around the islands.

Vice-ministerial-level talks with Japan in a bid to shore up cooling ties appeared to have ended in stalemate last month.

Reported by Shi Shan for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.