Saturday, May 31, 2008

No Self-Defense Airlift to China: A Few Observations

Howard French, writing for The New York Times yesterday (May 30), goes directly from Prime Minister Koizumi to Prime Minister Fukuda, skipping the Abe administration, when he comments on the ongoing transformation of the Japan-China relationship. Is it that hard to wrap their minds around a conservative Prime Minister doing a Nixon-Goes-to-China? Sorry to start with a digression, but didn’t Mr. French used to work here?

Mr. French might also have wanted to check in on the Japanese media before he filed his story. The May 30 morning editions—Japan Standard Time—were already reporting that the Japanese authorities were giving up on the idea of sending supplies on a Japanese Air Self-Defense Force transport plane in the face of Chinese reluctance and would instead likely charter a private-sector aircraft for the flight.

Media reports of what actually transpired vary slightly, but it appears that Chinese Defense Ministry officials talked to the Japanese Self-Defense Force attaché in Beijing on May 27 about receiving relief supplies through JASDF, and did not reject the use of JSADF aircraft when the attaché raised the question. In principle, there was nothing here to cause flags to be raised. Military aircraft is routinely used in international relief operations for obvious logistical and economic reasons. As subsequent reporting shows, the armed forces from United States and South Korea, as well as Russia, were already in the process of airlifting emergency supplies to China. However, when the Japanese media used Japanese government sources including the Chief Cabinet Secretary to carry stories focused, understandably, on the aircraft and the symbolism thereof, the Chinese Internet forums sprang into action. The reaction from the Chinese netizens was mixed, but my guess is that the negative substantially outweighed the positive. In the face of Chinese reluctance, the Fukuda administration had give up the idea by the end of the 29th.

Would the historical moment have come to pass if the Japanese authorities had handled it more discreetly? Of course we’ll never know for sure. One thing I am sure of though: When the Maritime Self-Defense Force vessel visits China in June, the Chinese authorities will carefully lay the groundwork for a very public welcome, reminding the Chinese public that China got the first crack in the exchange—that a Chinese missile-carrying destroyer docked in Tokyo last November.

Note also that the Chinese authorities never openly rejected or reacted negatively in any manner to the notion of a JASDF aircraft handling the transportation. Instead, they quietly made their concerns known and let the Japanese side shelve the idea. Elementary? Perhaps. But it is yet another clear example of the care with which they are managing the bilateral relationship from their end.

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