Drills Spur Nationalist Fervor

Beijing stages live-fire military games amid tensions with Japan.

2012-09-13
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China carried out live-fire military exercises Thursday in the wake of the purchase of a disputed island chain in the East China Sea by the Japanese government amid a flurry of nationalist rhetoric in the tightly controlled official media, although experts said a military confrontation remained unlikely.

According to the Shanghai Morning Post newspaper, the drills include a naval exercise in the Yellow Sea, as well as army and air force maneuvers in southwestern China, while the Beijing Times said that the drills include exercises which would prepare the country's People's Liberation Army (PLA) to retake the islands by force.

Chinese papers also boosted the anti-Japanese rhetoric in a series of editorials, with the Global Times, which has links to the ruling Chinese Communist Party, warning Tokyo that China could act to "wash away" the shame of its wartime humiliation at Japanese hands.

"The Chinese have restrained their antipathy toward Japan for a few generations," the article said. "The brief friendly period of the 1970s and 80s helped heal the wounds between the two countries. But it is far from a fundamental change."

"We are gradually realizing among seemingly endless provocations from neighboring countries that a firm response to the provocateur is also a must for securing a peaceful environment," the paper wrote.

The English-language China Daily newspaper quoted a senior Chinese foreign ministry official as saying that China would never acknowledge Japan's "illegal grab and so-called actual control" of the Diaoyu Islands, which are administered as the Senkaku by Japan's coastguard but claimed by China and Taiwan.

Internal tensions

But China analysts said the anti-Japanese rhetoric had more to do with internal tensions within the Party ahead of a key leadership transition later this year, and was unlikely to escalate into the use of military force by Beijing.

"If we take the Global Times as the official mouthpiece [of the Communist Party], then according to the tone that the Global Times is setting, it seems that their attitude is getting more and more hard line, and that they are blowing this up to attract people's attention," said profesor Xia Ming,  a political science teacher at the College of Staten Island in New York.

"But the time isn't ripe for China to sort out this issue. They are just using it as a way to manipulate a nationalistic mood [among the public]," Xia said.

U.S.-based China analyst and former investigative reporter Zhao Yan agreed.

"I don't think there's much likelihood of a real military clash here," he told RFA's Mandarin service. "I think that all of this talk on the part of mainland China and President Hu Jintao of defending national sovereignty is fake patriotism. There's nothing real about it."

He said the growing tensions with Japan over the disputed island chain were more of a reflection of internal strains among China's ruling elite, which has been hit by a series of political scandals ahead of its 18th Party Congress, for which a date has yet to be announced.

"I think the fact that Sino-Japanese relations are strained right now has to be connected to this," Zhao said.

He said that Beijing was also keeping a tight leash on grass-roots activism and anti-Japanese demonstrations, which have been notably smaller since the detention of a group of activists from Hong Kong who landed on the islands last month.

"I think they are quite concerned about grass-roots activism on the Diaoyu Islands, because we all know that nationalism, whether it be real or fake, is a double-edged sword," Zhao said. "If the mood escalates, then China could face a real crisis in controlling it."

International concerns

Xia said the international community was nonetheless concerned over a string of territorial disputes in the South and East China seas in recent months, which have included standoffs with the Philippines at Scarborough Shoal and with Vietnam over the oil-rich Spratly Islands.

"This dispute between China and Japan over the Diaoyu isn't just a bilateral issue," he said. "Lots of different countries, including the United States, are concerned about it, because what happens here could provide a precedent for dealing with other regional disputes."

He said that China's nationalistic stance was a reflection of a lack of pluralism in public debate.

"I think that... China has clearly taken the position of rejecting [political] diversification or internationalization, and instead has resorted to threatening the use of military force. I think that this is very closely linked to their current political system," Xia said.

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

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