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China-Japan disputes spill onto opinion pages

Saturday - 1/18/2014, 2:04pm  ET

MATTHEW PENNINGTON
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Escalating disputes between Japan and China are spilling onto newspaper opinion pages around the globe as the rivals try to sway attitudes abroad and placate nationalist fervor at home.

Japan's ambassador to the U.S., in the latest salvo, accused China of a propaganda campaign that portrays Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as glorifying Japan's militaristic past.

"It is not Japan that most of Asia and the international community worry about; it is China," Kenichiro Sasae wrote in Friday's Washington Post.

Both nations have been criticized for recent actions: China for its declaration of an air defense zone over a disputed area of the East China Sea; Abe for his visit to a shrine where convicted World War II war criminals are among the many honored.

Chinese envoys have spared the diplomacy in their opinion pieces.

On the Pacific island of Vanuatu, the Chinese ambassador accused Abe of "a gross trampling upon world peace and human conscience." In Australia, the ambassador said the prime minister had "put the international community on high alert," while the ambassador in Madagascar said Abe's action was comparable to "laying a wreath at Hitler's bunker."

The most headlining-grabbing exchange to date was in Britain's Daily Telegraph. The Chinese and Japanese ambassadors compared each other's nations, in some shape or form, to the evil Lord Voldemort of the Harry Potter books.

The antipathy between Japan and China is rooted in Japan's occupation of parts of China in the first half of the 20th century. But ties have been especially strained since 2012 when Tokyo nationalized some unoccupied islands it administers in the East China Sea that are also claimed by Beijing.

That touched off nationalist sentiments in China, which viewed the step as a change in the status quo and stepped up military patrols. Japan refuses to acknowledge that's there's a territorial dispute.

The two nations' security forces have steered clear of outright confrontation around the islands, known as Senkaku by Japan and Diayou by China, so war appears a distant possibility. It would be ruinous to both their economies, which are deeply interconnected.

But the propaganda battle is a serious one.

According to Japanese officials, China has posted articles in nearly 40 countries, and Japan has so far responded in a dozen of them, with more planned.

China began the op-ed offensive days after Abe's Dec. 26 visit to the Yasukuni shrine, the first by a Japanese prime minister since 2006.

The visit angered China and the two Koreas, where occupying Japanese forces committed atrocities before and during World War II. The visit also drew a rare expression of disapproval by the U.S. of its Japanese ally.

China's tough response underscored how sensitive its people are about Japan's past abuses and current Japanese attitudes.

But Jim Schoff, a senior associate for the Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, said China also was capitalizing on an opportunity provided by Abe's visit to put Japan on the defensive.

China faced much international criticism in November when it declared an air defense identification zone over the disputed area of the East China Sea, including the islands administered by Japan. China's action deepened concern over its approach to pushing its territorial claims with its neighbors and was sharply criticized by Washington.

Last week in The Post, China's ambassador to the U.S., Cui Tiankai, accused Abe of denying wartime atrocities. The diplomat linked Abe's homage at Yasukuni to his government's efforts to loosen the constitutional constraints to reform Japan's military and project power overseas.

Sasae later railed against "China's unparalleled military buildup" and noted that its growth in military spending far exceeds Japan's. He also said China's control on information and debate at home means "Chinese people cannot see the truth that people throughout the world see."

America's treaty alliance with Japan means it could be drawn into a conflict between Japan and China.

While the prospects for improving relations in the short term appear dim, Schoff said: "Better to escalate on the pages of newspapers than in other ways."


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