Diaoyu and local politics

TIMING often affects political events, as has happened in recent months since the renewed Sino-Japanese tensions over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands occupied by Japan and claimed by China.

The flare-up's trigger point was Tokyo's purchase - from private owners - of some of the disputed islands. China protested, nationalism and citizen anger surged in both countries, and high-risk military confrontations took place around the disputed waters.

Beijing, one senior diplomat observed, might have viewed Tokyo's action as infringing the status quo, which both sides had long hewed to, despite reservations.

In fact, Chinese domestic politics also factors heavily in the dispute. The Japanese government's move occurred just when a delicate leadership succession process was taking place in China.

Hence, two factors in China's domestic politics might help explain the strong Chinese reaction.

Consolidation of power

THE first, as noted, was the leadership succession, which compels a new leader to take strong actions to consolidate his power.

It was in early September last year that Tokyo announced its move to purchase the islands - to pre-empt ultra-nationalists from doing so. But this event happened when China was preparing for the 18th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) - slated in late 2012 and eventually held in mid-November - and when President Hu Jintao was about to hand over his post to Vice-President Xi Jinping.

Mr Xi will have to sail through three consecutive processes before he consolidates his power as the new leader. First, at the 18th Party Congress, Mr Hu handed over his posts of General-Secretary and Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) of the CCP to Mr Xi.

Next, Mr Xi will this month assume the Presidency and the Chairmanship of the CMC at the annual session of the legislature, that is, the National People's Congress (NPC). Technically, legislators will vote for or against him as the new President and new CMC Chairman. It is only after the NPC session is over that the succession process is formally completed.

Before the 18th Party Congress and the annual legislative session, Mr Xi would likely want to ensure that no event derails his smooth takeover of these top posts.

Furthermore, even in the few months after the NPC session, he will still need to win the respect of officials and the people to consolidate his status as new leader.

In this context, if Mr Xi exercises too much self-restraint and pushes a conciliatory line in the Diaoyu dispute, he risks being seen as too soft by officials and the public and would lose domestic support. This would undermine his efforts to consolidate power.

Thus, taking a firm stance on the island disputes is a logical choice for Mr Xi. He needs to project an image of a leader who can defend Chinese territorial claims. This is particularly so in the context of an overwhelming majority of the urban Chinese holding a negative view of Japan in recent years, as seen in public opinion polls in 2010-2011.

In past decades, there was at least a precedent when a new successor had to take a hawkish line over issues and perceived provocations that would undermine China's sovereignty and territorial integrity. During 1995-96, Mr Jiang Zemin was busy consolidating his power as the successor to the increasingly ailing paramount leader Deng Xiaoping.

When Taiwanese leader Lee Tung-hui made strong rhetoric and moves to promote a Taiwanese identity that seemed to be aimed at Taiwanese independence, Mr Jiang was forced to react forcefully. The People's Liberation Army (PLA) fired missiles into the Taiwan Strait in order to "warn" Mr Lee.

Mr Xi's leadership style

THE other factor which underpinned China's strong response towards Tokyo's purchase of the islands is the political and leadership style of the new leader.

Mr Xi is widely believed to be more assertive and probably more nationalistic than Mr Jiang and Mr Hu. Some observers even dub him "Little Deng", suggesting that he would act tough in external relations, like Deng did.

Deng, soon after his return to power in 1978, had ordered the PLA to launch a large-scale invasion of Vietnam - the two sides had fallen out - which resulted in heavy casualties on both sides. Deng's main reason for this war was to teach the Vietnamese leaders a bitter lesson.

For decades, China had provided fellow communist Vietnam with massive material, advisory and logistic support. But as the Chinese saw it, once Vietnam had achieved national unification, it sided with China's archrival, the then-Soviet Union. Vietnam had invaded Cambodia, a close Chinese ally. Hanoi had also expelled ethnic Chinese and confiscated their property.

It may be far-fetched to speculate that Mr Xi will not hesitate to use force to reclaim the islands as well as take control of islands and islets in the disputed South China Sea too. But some observers expect a tougher Chinese stance in territorial disputes under Mr Xi.

It should also be said here that domestic politics was a factor in the Japanese government's handling of the Diaoyu/Senkaku dispute. The decision of the government of the Democratic Socialist Party to purchase the islands was probably aimed at depriving right-wing politicians of an issue they could use to capture votes in a national election.

After winning the recent national polls, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) also took a strong stance on the islands. The LDP won the election partly on the platform of acting tough against China in the dispute. A good number of right-wing members of the party won seats in the Diet. Right after the election, the LDP needed to make gestures to honour its campaign promise.

Both East Asian giants are being pulled towards confrontation by the dynamics of domestic leadership succession. The tough moves have led to risky confrontations around the East China Sea but they are probably deemed imperative on both sides.

stopinion@sph.com.sg

The writer is Associate Professor of the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham, UK. The views expressed here are his own.