Foreign Affairs

Meanwhile, China prepares for war with Japan

Meanwhile, China prepares for war with Japan

I’m sure this didn’t come up when President Obama did the Letterman show last night, and I’m positive it wasn’t mentioned at the fundraiser Jay-Z and Beyonce hosted for Obama, but while the world’s attention has been focused on the flaming wreckage of Obama’s foreign policy in the Middle East, China and Japan have been moving to the brink of war.

On Tuesday, the Washington Free Beacon reported that General Xu Caihou, chairman of the Central Military Commission and one of China’s top military leaders, issued a public statement last Friday warning his forces to be “prepared for any possible military combat.”  Intelligence officials say that such a statement from a top general is unusual.

Chinese warships are on the move.  Huge street protests – far larger than the Muslim demonstrations against that YouTube video – have boiled through Chinese cities, with protesters urging the government to “Fight to the Death” and “Kill all Japanese,” with nuclear weapons if necessary.  There has been vandalism of Japanese property, leading hundreds of Japanese stores and industrial facilities – Panasonic and Canon among them – to close down across China, with many workers evacuated back to Japan.

Angry mobs have surrounded the Japanese embassy in Beijing, thus far without violence, aside from a few bottles thrown at the walls … and a bit of damage to the car containing U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke, who had to drive through the mob on his way to the nearby American embassy in Beijing.  Protests were still breaking out as recently as yesterday, which happens to have been a grim anniversary in relations between China and Japan, as Sept. 18 was the date Japanese forces destroyed a Manchurian railroad and blamed it on Chinese dissidents in 1931, laying the groundwork for their invasion of China.

The Obama administration shouldn’t waste time with lame “spontaneous protests took us by surprise” excuses like they did in Libya, because in China, not much of anything is “spontaneous,” including street protests.  The Chinese “press,” which Obama campaign operatives and officials have suddenly become fond of citing as a credible news source (Joe Biden just did it again on Tuesday) is the voice of the regime.  “Mob actions” are puppet shows in which the Communist government has mock arguments with its own id, to make itself look restrained and reasonable compared to what “the people really want.”  In this case, there is a dangerous implication that Beijing’s restraint might slip.

Reuters brings us an amusingly Orwellian quote from Shi Yinhong, professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing, about the government’s role in orchestrating these demonstrations: “The Chinese government has discussed the anti-Japan protests but never encouraged them.  It’s very clear too that the Chinese government is about to open its 18th Party Congress. I think after September 18, the Chinese government will not encourage public opinion on these protests anymore.”

The government won’t encourage public opinion anymore?  But you just said they weren’t encouraging it!  Forget it, Jake, it’s China town.

The cause of all this tension is a group of islands in the East China Sea, which Japan refers to as the Senkaku Islands.  China is increasingly less interested in hearing the name Japan gives them.  (The Chinese name for the islands is “Diaoyu.”)  The ownership of these islands has been disputed for a long time.  A flare-up of tensions over the territory occurred in 2010, after a Chinese fishing trawler plowed into a Japanese coast guard vessel, but things seem much more serious this time.  As Joe Biden doubtlessly gleaned from his favorite new Communist “news” source, the Chinese government is also feeling a bit irritable about the beating it’s taking from both sides on the American presidential campaign trail.

The terms of the Senkaku dispute are complex, and China is not without a legal leg to stand on.  As far back as the 18th century, China claimed a semi-formal dominion over the islands as vassals – an arrangement that arguably included quite a bit of modern Japan.  Japan formally annexed the islands after its military defeat of China in 1895.  They’re rather remote, entering maritime lore as a desolate waypoint on the trade route between China and Japan.  It’s an open question who really “lived there” first, although it has been said that the oldest human remains interred on the islands are fishermen from … Taiwan, which also says it has a claim on the Senkaku Islands, just in case this wasn’t a sufficiently touchy issue already.

Japan wasn’t in a position to enforce a lot of territorial demands after World War II, so the fate of the Senkaku Islands was left somewhat ambiguous.  The Chinese have an interesting, but highly debatable, legal case that postwar treaties should have given them control, ending what amounted to a temporary occupation by Japan between 1895 and 1945.  However, the United States administered the territory during its occupation of Japan, formally turning them over to Japanese control in 1972.  The Chinese never really accepted the finality of that arrangement, so the argument has continued ever since.  And if a violent confrontation ensues, the United States has treaty obligations to defend Japan.

The island real estate was technically in the hands of private owners up until last week, when the Japanese government formally purchased them.  This move was actually mean to deflate tensions with China, because the governor of Tokyo wanted to begin aggressive development of the Senkaku’s resources.  The national government headed him off by buying up the island real estate.  China nevertheless declared Japan’s purchase to be “wrong behavior” and a “farce,” in the words of Xi Jinping, who is currently China’s vice-president, but is widely seen as next in line for the top job, in a generational transfer of power.

In case you’re wondering why everyone is so bent out of shape over a couple of tiny islands where nobody really lives, it’s because the fishing is said to be excellent.  Oh, and there’s oil nearby.  That might have something to do with it.

Now we’ve got Chinese warships floating around the Senkaku, staring down Japanese coast guard vessels.  A flotilla consisting of hundreds of Chinese fishing boats is reportedly en route to the islands.  Defense Secretary Leon Panetta visited both Japan and China over the past few days, but the Chinese defense minister emerged from his meeting with Panetta and said his government still reserved the right to take “further action” if Japan doesn’t correct its “mistakes.”

Vice-president Xi emerged from those meetings with a warning: “Japan should rein in its behavior and stop any words and acts that undermine China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”  He doesn’t want to inaugurate his reign atop the Communist hierarchy by backing down from a confrontation with Japan. The Chinese also seem interested in testing their “smart power,” to borrow the phrase so popular in the current U.S. administration.  They have a great deal of economic leverage over both Japan and the United States, including a pivotal role in buying the American debt that sustains our wild federal spending habits.

The Japanese have elections coming up, so incumbent politicians are sensitive about their public image.  They’re also worried about Chinese hegemony extending through the South China Sea – a fear shared by some American officials, including Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

“While the world’s attention was turned to other crises, including Iran’s nuclear program and concerns over the faltering Euro, China has upped the ante, playing the role of a schoolyard bully towards its maritime neighbors.  From one end to the other of the South China Sea, Beijing has increased both in belligerence and bellicosity,” Ros-Lehtinen said last week, noting that control of sea lanes vital to trade and oil shipments could ultimately be at stake.

It looks like China is going to gently but firmly take control of those islands, with a fishing fleet operating under the watchful eye of military vessels, and dare Japan and her distant, bankrupt American ally to take them back.

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