Sunday 3 February 2013
Islands in the Stream
“What’s in a name?” Juliet asks in the play, “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” What’s in a name? Ah, Juliet, if it was only about flowers? What’s in a name? Why, war, possibly, especially if the name is Senkaku or Diaoyu. Take your pick and you take your sides, the first with Japan, the second with China, the Montagues and the Capulets of the East China Sea.
I wrote about the dispute over these uninhabited islands last November (Alas, Poor Moles). Since then the cold war has risen in temperature by several degrees. “We don’t want to fight but by jingo if we do we’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men, we’ve got the money too”, so went the old British music hall challenge. My, oh my, what a world we live in, with jingoism now making a novel appearance on Chinese state media. “Japan”, says the China Daily, “is the real danger and threat to the world.” A military clash, the Global Times, echoes, is now more likely. “We need to prepare for the worst”, its editorial said.
Alarming exaggerations, you might think, but the position is actually quite serious, getting ever more serious since the Japanese government nationalised the islands - previously in private hands - last September. In December Japanese fighters were scrambled after a Chinese patrol plane buzzed the islands. Last month aircraft from both nations played a game of tag over the islands’ air space. According to newspaper reports, Japan is considering firing warning shots in any subsequent aerial dance. A Chinese general has said that this will count as the start of “actual combat.”
How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be concerning ourselves because of a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing...especially in a spat over a group of rocks. Horrible, fantastic and incredible it may very well be, but if you are American you should be concerned. For one thing, Japan is presently governed by Shinzo Abe of the Liberal Democratic Party. While he is no General Tojo, he is a right-wing nationalist, one who believes that Japan needs to take a ‘tougher line’ with China. For another thing, America is treaty-bound to come to Japan’s aid if the country is attacked. Iraq and Afghanistan were bad enough but a new war in the Pacific – the horror! the horror!
The Chinese, incidentally, are well aware of the wider implications of the dispute. This is a country that, having left communism well behind, has embraced the most militant forms of nationalism. Suppressed and bullied for so many decades, China now wants to assert itself in a new form of manifest destiny. Japan, says the Global Daily, has become the “vanguard of American strategy to contain China.” The implication, the Economist reports, is clear enough – China should be ready to take on the United States.
Returning to my jingo theme, I think there is a game being played out here. The stakes are high and the wrong bid could be potentially catastrophic. China clearly wants to assert itself; for power politics has become the opium of the masses. Asserting itself is one thing; risking a region-wide war quite another. Japan is not only the country’s second biggest trading partner but it’s also one of its biggest investors. War or anything approaching war would potentially cripple the Chinese economy.
Nationalism is a dangerous and unpredictable beast. It’s anything but a paper tiger. A wrong move could lead to the communist oligarchy being devoured, a fact that surely cannot have escaped Beijing. It would be best for all parties to stand back and leave these islands, no matter what they are called, to the moles, their principal inhabitants. No venture, no gain, no loss, no prestige, no pride, no power; nothing. Let’s pray to God, for the sake of the little gentlemen in black, that oil is never discovered in these treacherous waters.