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China's neighbourly love-hate relations

The delicate balance of power that had kept the Asia-Pacific generally stable is now showing signs of fragility.
Last modified: 17 Sep 2012 00:33
Chinese protesters stage an anti-Japan rally outside the Japanese embassy in Beijing [Getty]

China, the largest and most powerful country in the region – both economically and militarily - has recently been likened to a greedy octopus stretching its multiple arms out to grasp everything it can.

To the east – the Diaoyu/Senkaku/Tiaoyutai islands, depending on which nationalist nomenclature one might ascribe to. Farther south - the Spratlys and the Paracels.

All of them - uninhabited but sitting in abundant fishing ground, on important international trade routes and potentially rich in gas and oil reserves.

They have been at the centre of centuries-old conflicting territorial claims that are now coming to a head.  For years, China’s geographic dispute with her neighbours spluttered along fairly innocuously.

Sure, there were sporadic incidents of relatively “mild” aggression on the high seas – but the neighbours’ economic interdependence meant they eventually died down and a status quo of quiet non-resolution was maintained.

But this time, Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam have been making more noise about territorial claims than they did before. Regional analysts attribute the shift to the more involved presence of the US.

The US has been bannering its military “pivot” towards the Asia-Pacific – and this is seen to be “emboldening” its allies. According to political analyst Andrew Leung, China’s neighbours might depend on China economically but they don’t want to be under her shadow, and the increased US attention offers a “free ride” under the superpower’s military umbrella - Which is not to say anyone is out for war.

"Even if a war was not directly with any one of them, an armed conflict on their doorstep would affect their economic growth and job," Leung explained.

But more than just diplomatic wrangling, the overlapping territorial claims have stoked nationalist fervour across claimant states and resulted in trade repercussions. Boycotts of each other’s products and travel bans have been called for. There have been "anti-China" rallies in Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam – as there have been "anti-all-the-other-countries" demonstrations in China.

In the last few days, after Japan announced it was purchasing disputed islands from a private owner, thousands have come out across China spewing their anger at anything related to Japan.

From the embassy in Beijing, to restaurants, shops and any other establishments that might be related to the "evildoer". That is how Japan was referred to on a Chinese ruling party website that also made a point of telling citizens that their "raging" patriotism might be counter-productive.

All in all, this was seen by many as a mixed message. That, and the fact that protesters managed to demonstrate loudly - all without being immediately stopped by Chinese police, have been taken by more than a few them as a silent mandate from their government. This is despite official pronouncements that China wants a peaceful resolution.

While the man-on-the-street fervour could be used as a less aggressive (that is, “not war”) means to illustrate each countries claim – the governments themselves are in a bind. Both China and Japan face leadership transitions – and could benefit from the nationally unifying role these international disputes are playing domestically.

At the same time, people are calling for their governments to be more “firm” in their territorial claims, and the current top officials are not likely to want to go out with a blow to their pride or their legacy.

So it goes back to a balancing act: domestic stability and international cooperation. But domestic stability also relies heavily on economics – and at the heart of the region’s symbiotic development sits China. For Japan, in particular, the largest trading partner.

China itself though cannot do with isolating itself from its neighbours, particularly not with the US now intent on playing a more vital role in the area.

Andrew Leung boils it down to a need to redefine regional reality. This time around, it may no longer do to maintain the status quo of quiet non-resolution.