The situation in China is quite the opposite. The Chinese government’s cool approach stands in sharp contrast with heated public opinion, highlighting the quandary in which the government finds itself over the Diaoyutais issue. Influenced by longstanding anti-Japanese education, there is a strong atmosphere of anti-Japanese sentiment among the Chinese. As a result, whenever there is any slight friction between the two countries, it can set off an intense anti-Japanese movement among ordinary people. This popular pressure makes it hard for the Chinese government so step back, for fear of getting bitten by the fierce nationalism it has fostered.
If the Chinese government does not send PLA Navy ships to protect boats carrying protesters to the Diaoyutais, it risks being called weak and incompetent. On the other hand, if it really sent its navy to intervene, given the weak foundation of mutual trust between China and Japan, a small clash could easily lead to a major confrontation. Furthermore, once something happens to spark Chinese nationalistic ire, it can be hard to extinguish. If such a turn of events were to happen now, as the Chinese Communist Party prepares to hold its 18th National Congress, it would be sure to cause major political twists and turns.
As a small country squeezed between the US, Chinese and Japanese spheres of influence, Taiwan must handle the Diaoyutai Islands issue pragmatically, being neither haughty nor overly humble. It is no easy task. Any movement advocating Taiwan’s ownership of the Diaoyutais will have to use smart power, not Boxer Rebellion-style populism.
Although the Hong Kong-based Diaoyutais protesters gained some emotional release when they landed on the islands last week, they also caused heightened tensions between China and Japan. Their action has whittled mutual trust between China and Japan down to nothing, and it has given a stimulus to rightwing forces in Japan, forcing the Japanese government to make a tough response.
Apart from contributing nothing to a resolution of the Diaoyutai Islands issue, the recent protests will make it hard to celebrate the approaching 40th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Japan, and they pose a considerable challenge to relations between the two countries in the foreseeable future.
Fan Shih-ping is a professor in the Graduate Institute of Political Science at National Taiwan Normal University.
Translated by Julian Clegg