protester in Shenzhen. Photo： Reuters
Anti-Japanese protests flaring up across China struck more than 50 cities over the weekend. In some major cities, like Changsha, Qingdao, Xi'an, Shenzhen and Shanghai, demonstrators vented their anger by smashing Japanese shops and department stores, burning flags, breaking electronics or in some cases overturning and burning cars.
In Beijing, protesters behaved with somewhat more self-restraint, simply pelting the Japanese Embassy with eggs and paint. But overall, the growing bellicosity of expressions against all things Japanese is creating concern that outrage may eventually translate into attacks on Japanese residents in China.
On Tuesday morning, the protests continued as thousands marched past the japanese embassy again, shouting patriotic slogans, demanding boycotts of Japanese goods and calling on China to assert its claim over disputed islands, the Associated Press reported.
Reuters reported that hundreds of Japanese businesses in China and the embassy suspended services Tuesday.
The Japanese prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, called on the Chinese government on Sunday to protect and ensure the safety of Japanese citizens in China -- while Japanese diplomatic offices in the country have issued travel warnings and advisories.
The recent demonstrations in China have been sparked by the Japanese national government's formal purchase of three islands in what it calls the Senkakus from a private Japanese owner. China instead claims the group as the Diaoyu islands and opposes Tokyo's historical claims on the area as illegitimate.
The Japanese government's recent move, originally explained by Noda as a means to calm tensions by preventing the purchase by the governorship of Tokyo, has backfired in a major way. Tokyo's nationalistic governor, Shintaro Ishihara, noted in the region for his strong stance against Chinese and Korean nationalists, originally proposed the purchase in April.
China is now coming to the end of a self-imposed voluntary summertime fishing prohibition in the East China Sea. Initially, China-watchers were concerned that as boats from the Chinese coast sailed out of harbors on Sunday, many would head into contested waters near the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.
Chinese fishing ships, leaving port in Zhejiang Province after an end to a temporary fishing prohibition over the summer. Photo: Xinhua
Those predictions bore fruit in a major way on Monday, as news agencies in both countries reported what appeared to be an impromptu Chinese shipping fleet, some 1,000 flag-bedecked vessels strong, now headed to the waters near the disputed sea zone and islets.
On Tuesday morning, the Japanese coast guard said it warned away a Chinese boat that was spotted near one of the disputed islands, the Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported.
A coast guard spokesman in Okinawa said a Chinese fishery's patrol boat was sighted near the main islet and was contacted by radio.
Already patrolling the area are coast guard vessels from Japan, mainland China and Taiwan -- to variously show their flags and publicly display their claims on the islands.
The arrival of the Chinese fishing ships could force the Japanese coast guard to carry out arrests and boardings of Chinese vessels, though it seems doubtful that they could do so against so many, especially while busy dealing with Chinese coast guard ships at the same time. Taipei, like Beijing, denies Tokyo has a legitimate claim to the islands and insists they belong to China (that is, the Republic of China, on Taiwan).
On Sunday, Japan's diplomatic community suffered other setbacks. The new ambassador to China, Shinichi Nishimiya, died suddenly and coincidentally in Tokyo, having just postponed his arrival to Beijing three days prior. Nishimiya was expected to replace outgoing ambassador Uichiro Niwa, a former CEO of Itochu who was believed to have leveraged his business connections in China to improve relations between the two countries.
That's setting a precarious stage for U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta as he arrives in Beijing on Monday. Panetta, who has just wrapped up a plan with Japan to expand the missile defense shield shared by their alliance, is expected to face multiple pressures on his trip in China.
In Shanghai, a Honda owner torched his own car in front of a Honda dealership in order to demonstrate his opposition to Japan. Photo: Sina Weibo/ Shanghaiist
Whether Panetta will be able to assuage both or even either side is in question. This was to be Panetta's first official trip to Beijing as defense secretary, coming after a year of what appeared to be improving military-to-military exchanges between China and the U.S. (Earlier this year, Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie visited U.S. defense institutions and centers across the U.S. in a goodwill trip).
In an interview with Foreign Policy before his departure, Panetta stated that the U.S. has "urged both China and Japan ... to resolve these disputes as peacefully as possible."
But in a nod to just how difficult regional relations were, Panetta noted that "there are a lot of concerns in that area, issues dealing with nuclear proliferation, issues dealing with the whole question of maritime navigation rights, issues dealing with trade that have to be dealt with."
Panetta added that in taking on the role of an international mediator, the U.S. would urge China and others to "develop a mechanism that allows all of these countries ... to come together in a peaceful way to try to resolve these challenges."
Panetta is expected to meet with Xi Jinping -- widely expected to become the next president of China -- who had previously been at the center of wide media speculation in the West due to an absence from public view over the past two weeks.
Chinese Vice-President Xi Jinping, in a public appearance in Beijing with students performing science experiments, dispelling rumors of his ill-health. Photo： Reuters
Analysts expected Panetta's visit with top Chinese leaders to focus on setting the tone for future security engagement between the two countries, but it now appears that discussions about Japan will be unavoidable, not to mention China's other maritime tensions with nations in the South China Sea.
The growing outbursts in China are already increasing fears that the row between China and Japan could translate into further escalations, perhaps in trade, perhaps -- unimaginably worse -- into open military conflict.
Chinese demonstrators destroying a Japanese car in Changsha, caught on cellphone and posted onto microblogs. Photo： Sina Weibo/ Shanghaiist
But the worst may be yet to come. Expectations are that major protests will flare up again throughout Tuesday, Sept. 18, a pivotal date in modern Sino-Japanese relations.
Eighty-one years ago on that day in 1931, the Japanese Imperial Army -- then posted to northeastern China -- engineered a fake attack on a Japanese-owned railway in the area as a pretext for the wholesale takeover of Manchuria (recognized as under Chinese sovereignty but not directly governed by the Chinese capital, then in Nanjing). The series of events -- known in China as the "September 18 Incident," in Japan as the "Manchurian Incident" and in the West as the "Mukden Incident" -- began 14 years of Japanese aggression against China, one major step among many in Japan's early 20th century designs to take over the country.
That historical setting means that as Chinese nationalists vent their displeasure at Japanese control of the tiny islands in the East China Sea, differing interpretations of history in a region sensitive to past humiliation may set the tone for expanding demonstrations.
But China-watchers looking beyond the anti-Japanese dimension alone are quick to point out that the recent actions have at least something to do with general social frustrations (and the need for a public outburst) as much as they do with resentment toward Japan.
More sober-minded Chinese are criticizing the acts of violence against Japanese business and products, saying attacking Japanese goods and symbols merely hurts Chinese domestic business (which carry the products) or Chinese stores, restaurants and shops that offer services with a Japanese theme. Chinese companies, and even Japanese companies in China, have been quick to put up signs and Chinese flags, in an effort to convince attackers of their patriotic sentiments.
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