This year is the 120th anniversary of the start of the First Sino-Japanese War, a war that was to see a newly invigorated post-Meiji Restoration Japan defeat China, which had hitherto been the most formidable power in the region. Now the pendulum of power is swinging in the other direction and it is China’s turn to be in the ascendant.
China, ever-mindful of its century of shame and ignominy at the hands of other powers, has started making provocative overtures, but Japan is refusing to back down. Could this year also be the year that sees another conflagration erupt between these two old rivals?
According to Chinese military reports, two foreign fighter jets entered China’s East China Sea air defense identification zone (ADIZ) on Friday last week, the first day of the Lunar New Year. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force responded by scrambling two Sukhoi Su-30 fighters. The two sets of fighters played cat-and-mouse for three hours before the Sukhois finally expelled the outsiders, the reports said.
Following the incident, PLA Major General Luo Yuan (羅援), a known hawk, said the two foreign fighters were Japanese and criticized Japan for its timing, choosing to exploit the most important day of the Chinese holiday calendar. Tokyo declined to comment.
Chinese commentators on the Internet are undecided as to whether the reports are true. There was a similar report, almost word for word, exactly a year ago — a report of a couple of foreign fighter jets entering “a certain airspace.” The only difference between the closing remarks of last year’s report compared with this year’s was that the “Year of the Snake” was altered to the “Year of the Horse.”
Clearly, the authorities in Beijing have already decided that reports of enemy incursions as the Lunar New Year break commences are to be part of the routine round of propaganda, designed to fan nationalist sentiment aimed at an undisclosed foe.
So what if the Japanese fighter planes entered the zone, even supposing that they had? Neither Japan, nor the US, nor South Korea have recognized the recently and unilaterally announced zone, so fighters from those countries can fly through it as and when they please. This is not the Vietnam War; there has been no agreement to accommodate the Lunar New Year celebrations that needs to be bilaterally observed.
For Luo to brand Tokyo, as he has on this occasion, as a “troublemaker,” really is a case of the pot calling the kettle black. Which side announced the ADIZ, requiring other nations to inform Beijing of any plans to have their aircraft fly through it and for all detailed flight plans to be provided beforehand?
Beijing has tried this in the past, accusing Taipei of making trouble and trying to drive a wedge between it and the US. Now, China is attempting to do the same to Tokyo. It is a consistent strategy Beijing uses to isolate the US.
The Sino-Japanese diplomatic spat made it all the way to Germany on the second day of the Lunar New Year. Fu Ying (傅瑩), chairwoman of the foreign affairs committee of China’s National People’s Congress, attended the 50th Munich Security Conference on Saturday, where she roundly accused the Japanese leadership of denying Japanese atrocities committed during World War II, causing Sino-Japanese relations to sink to a new low.
Japanese Minister of Foreign Affairs Fumio Kishida responded by saying that his country had “looked squarely at history” and its role in the war, that it deeply regretted its colonial rule in Asia and that it was committed to a new route in the post-war period as a peaceful nation.
When dealing with other nations, it is important to understand how to emphasize each side’s strengths and avoid the weaknesses. Japan should do its best to avoid its past mistakes, focus on the present and not allow itself to be dragged along by the back of its collar.
Too many countries forget that when dealing with China they have an advantage. They are democratic nations as opposed to China’s authoritarian system. Because of this, when Kishida was addressing Fu’s accusations, he ought to have emphasized not just Japan’s commitment to being a peaceful nation, but also its status as a democratic one. Peace and democracy are universal values, but the latter perhaps more so than the former.
If there is to be an outbreak of hostilities between Japan and China, the likelihood of it happening is higher with a clash in the air than at sea, as jets are so much faster. The possibility of things getting out of hand are all the stronger as a result. China has deployed Su-30 fighters, its most advanced jets, near the East China Sea in preparation for war. The First Sino-Japanese War sealed Taiwan’s fate once. Perhaps another will change Taiwan’s destiny once more.
Paul Lin is a political commentator.
Translated by Paul Cooper
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