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Monday, 20 September 2010

The Reaction Says It All

As has become almost routine over the last two weeks, Chinese online media sites are once again filled today with reports condemning Japan's actions in the East China Sea affair. In response to the decision taken yesterday to extend the detention of the captain of the Chinese fishing trawler by a further ten days, the People's Daily Online ran its own piece condemning Japan's “inflexible foreign policy” and reporting opinion that Japan chooses to “take a tough stance to irritate China's Government and [the] Chinese People”. Xinhua chipped in with two articles entitled “Chinese vice FM strongly protests Japan's extended detention of Chinese skipper” and “Chinese public screams for immediate release of Chinese captain under illegal Japanese detention”, and the China Daily ran with “China warns Japan of strong response”. These headlines are some of the most strongly worded seen since the controversy erupted two weeks ago, and demonstrate how the story continues to sour bilateral relations between China and Japan even more.

References to Chinese citizens themselves in both the headlines and the main stories show how the Party has managed to portray Japan's actions as a threat to the very integrity of the Chinese people. China's response to the perceived Japanese intransigence on the issue can now be legitimised as having the support of (in the words of the People's Daily) “overwhelming public opinion throughout China”- by linking foreign policy to the nation, Beijing has cleverly provided itself with a remit to take effective action and bring the row to an end should it so desire.

While Xinhua was warning of strong counter-measures if the Japanese do not release the Chinese trawler captain at once, interestingly the China Daily decided to take a slightly different line. Although the site echoed the comments of the Chinese Vice-Foreign Minister featured on Xinhua, it also highlighted opinion which suggests that the PRC will only be looking to resolve the dispute by peaceful means. According to an expert from the Chinese Foundation of International Studies, the country has no intention of putting harmony between Asia's nations under threat. Several articles covering the affair have picked up on Japan's increasing economic dependence on China- a situation that might allow China to slowly 'turn the screw' if its demands aren't met. Yet, such economic interaction cuts both ways- sanctions China places on Japan will have an adverse affect on its own economy too. Before taking this kind of step, Beijing will need to give serious consideration as to the short and long term consequences for China's own position in Asia.

For now, the Chinese captain remains in Japanese custody and the PRC maintains its stream of eye-catching diplomatic and political moves aimed at expressing the government's intense displeasure. As Sino-Gist routinely concludes, it is hard to say how the crisis will play itself out in the next few days. What is clear though is that, two weeks after the tension started to build between China and Japan, the latter is not prepared to back down in the face of a Chinese show of strength. The refusal of Japan's politicians to bow to pressure can be seen as both principled resistance and a dangerous political folly. However, Japan seems set to stick to this course of action- it will need more than the “screams” of the Chinese public to change Tokyo's mind.

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