A montage created with a section of a 1969 map of the Senkaku Islands (PRC/BH)
By Tao Duan Fan
BEIJING - For two days, there was rampant speculation across Asia about whether Uichiro Niwa, Japan's Ambassador to China, would return to Beijing. But after his sudden “temporary recall” on July 15 to discuss the dispute over the Senkaku Islands (also known as the Diaoyu Islandsin China), Niwa calmly came back to the Chinese capital the next day.
Judging from Japan's official attitude, it looks like the tension between China and Japan won't escalate. At least for now. Nevertheless, rumors about Ambassador Niwa's possible dismissal continue to circulate, and we are still short of any sort of détente either.
Niwa is considered by some observers in both China and Japan as coming from the “China school”. He has on several occasions made remarks about hot issues such as the Senkaku dispute in a different tone from that of Japan's right-wing establishment, creating the appearance that there is a difference in policy between his and that of the prime minister, the parliament, as well as the Democratic Party.
This all helps to explain the non-stop rumors about him being replaced. And though he in fact quickly returned to China after the sudden recall, the Japanese Foreign Ministry 's official line is that “An ambassador is required to accurately convey the Japanese government's position,” which does seem to be a subtle way of warning him.
Some worry that if Niwa is ever replaced, the bridge of Sino-Japanese relations would be broken. This is probably a superfluous concern since the dispute over the Senkaku Islands isn't really caused by “inaccurate communication” between the two countries, nor by any “misunderstanding” amongst the diplomats.
On the contrary, both countries have always had a clear understanding of each other's position. They both understand very well that the reason why it's so difficult to reconcile their divergence is because it's a question of principle, not because of any communication missteps.
In short, whether or not Niwa is Japan's ambassador to China will make little difference. There is no shortage of “China school” adherents in Japan's diplomatic corps. It's just that Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda is forced to select someone from his own party, restricting the number of qualified candidates.
Up to now, both China and Japan have made it clear that Senkaku Island's sovereignty is a fundamental matter of principle, and both consider their respective position is “irrefutable.” If China at least admits that there is a dispute, and the necessity of negotiation, Japan doesn't even acknowledge the existence of such an issue. In the past, the two governments have tacitly shelved this topic, leaving the contradiction silently stewing for too long.
Tokyo's nationalist governor, Shintaro Ishihara, has offered to buy the islands and "protect" them from Chinese intrusion.The rise of China has largely increased Japanese people's anxiety.
Playing to the populists
Coupled with the vicissitudes of Japan's domestic politics, various politicians race to wield magic weapons such as nationalism and toughness towards China to please the populists at home.
Meanwhile, as China has grown stronger, the trump cards played by Japanese politicians, trumpeting the “Landing of the Senkaku,” are bound to prompt the Chinese to respond in kind. This explains why collisions between the two countries are becoming more and more intense.
Still, before going too far, we must remember that China and Japan are after all neighboring nations, intricately linked on both economic and security interests.
They are also the world's second and third biggest economies, and the strongest powers in the Far East. Though this tension between the big country and the rich country has much riding on it, it's at the same time the conflict the least likely to explode since they have the most to gain if the region stays peaceful and secure.
For this reason, even if Sino-Japanese conflicts often seem on the verge of blowing up, someone always pulls on the emergency brake in the nick of time.
"Seeking common ground while reserving differences…” This is the concept that drives the way Chinese and Japanese, as old enemies as well as old partners, like to think about each other. For now, it is probably sufficient for keeping the peace.
Read the original article in Chinese
Photo - PRC/BH