China, Japan fishing boat row reflects shift in Beijing's approach toward Tokyo

Even as Beijing raises pressure on Japan to release a detained fishing boat captain, it appears reluctant to exploit this weekend's anniversary of Japan's invasion of Manchuria in 1931 for political purposes.

Japan Coast Guard/EPN/EPN/Newscom
In this photo released by Japan Coast Guard, a Coast Guard boat, foreground, goes by a Chinese fishing boat which Coast Guard officers are on board for inspection after it collided with two Japanese patrol vessels near a chain of disputed islands known as Senkaku in Japanese or Diaoyu in Chinese in the East China Sea, Tuesday, Sept. 7.

As the diplomatic row intensifies over the detention of a Chinese fishing captain in disputed waters between Japan and China, a sensitive anniversary that could touch raw nerves here is approaching.

Saturday marks the 79-year anniversary of Japan’s invasion of Manchuria on Sept. 18, 1931, a move that led to 14 years of bloody and painful occupation in China.

The Chinese government, however, seems keen not to exploit the date, nor to allow Chinese protesters to do so, even as Beijing steps up diplomatic pressure for the captain’s release.

Whispered rumors of public demonstrations planned for Saturday remain vague. Websites, Internet bulletin boards, and chat rooms appear to have been ordered not to allow any posts advocating such protests.

Marked contrast

“There has been limited [government] tolerance for expressions of anti-Japanese feeling, but real caution about letting this spread around China,” says James Reilly, who teaches Chinese politics at the University of Sydney in Australia.

This attitude stands in marked contrast with the last occasion on which Sino-Japanese relations hit a crisis, in April 2005. Then, the Chinese authorities allowed tens of thousands of angry protesters onto the streets of Beijing, Shanghai, and other cities. Police stood by as they hurled bottles and rocks at the Japanese embassy, overturned and set fire to Japanese-made cars, and assaulted Japanese restaurants.

“The size and the violence of those demonstrations startled the government,” says Dr. Reilly. This time, he points out, the police allowed a closely controlled group of about three dozen demonstrators to gather outside the Japanese embassy last week, “but the government would rather not have thousands of people in the streets.”

Anti-Japanese feelings run strongly among the Chinese public, and not far below the surface. The government has not been above stirring those feelings and using them in diplomatic tussles with Tokyo.

Is Beijing trying to cut back on the anti-Japanese rhetoric?

Over the past few years, however, the Chinese authorities have strictly limited the number of anti-Japanese articles appearing in the press here, according to a study by Reilly. Attempts to put a more positive public gloss on China’s traditional rival match Beijing’s diplomatic efforts to patch up relations, says Reilly.

Chinese President Hu Jintao visited Tokyo in 2008 for what Chinese commentators called a “warm spring trip”– the first such overture by a Chinese head of state for a decade. The past four Japanese prime ministers have all visited Beijing.

Over the past few days, since a Japanese coast guard vessel detained a Chinese fishing boat near a disputed chain of islands in the East China Sea, Beijing has repeatedly stepped up its diplomatic pressure against Tokyo. However, it has kept a fairly tight reign on its public rhetoric.

China canceled a planned round of negotiations over how gas fields in disputed waters might be exploited. It also called off a visit to Tokyo by a top leader of the Chinese parliament.

The future of the dispute now appears to hinge on the Japanese prosecutor, who has been given until Sunday by a Japanese judge to decide whether to charge the Chinese fisherman accused of ramming a Japanese patrol boat with obstructing public officials.

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