Clarissa Tan

China steps into the breach

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China has lost little time pledging rescue help and aid to Japan, even though it is burying its own dead from the earthquake that shook Yunnan on Thursday. Beijing is keenly aware the world is watching it like never before – so its leaders are keen to make all the right noises. But dig deeper, and the reaction is more ambivalent, especially amongst ordinary Chinese, many of whom seem to have mixed feelings about Japan’s disaster. On sites such as Sina Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, some microbloggers have been snide – and some downright sadistic. (The Wall St Journal blog translates some here). It’s a reminder that Sino-Japanese enmity can run very deep. The war seems a long time ago for Europe, but not so in Asia. For many Chinese, events like the Nanking massacre still loom surpisingly large in the memory.

Beneath the goodwill (and attendant photo op) that may be generated from Chinese rescue workers landing in Japan lies an old unease that has intensified in recent months. Tokyo reacted with anxiety when Beijing declared it would raise its defense spending by 13 percent this year (many experts think actual spending will be higher), and just one week ago it protested over a Chinese military helicopter buzzing one of its destroyers in the East China Sea. The governor of Tokyo recently told the Independent that Japan will have to develop nuclear weapons, and Wikileaks reveals that Japan is creating a spy agency for the first time it its postwar history. Last month, Japan learned it had been leapfrogged by China as the world’s second-biggest economy – a title which Japan held for 42 years.

Yet for all the bad chemistry between China and Japan, there is an element of realpolitik in Beijing’s response to the tsunami. China has little incentive to antagonise its weakened, but still-powerful and Washington-backed, rival. The two nations are, historically and culturally, inextricably linked. China is Japan’s biggest trading partner, and tens of thousands of Chinese students go to Japan every year, no doubt benefitting from the country’s first-class education and infrastructure. The ties are too close, too deep. Yesterday’s devastating quake in Japan was, after all, also felt in Beijing.

For today, at least, the hostile editorials normally printed in the state-run Chinese press have been replaced by expressions of fraternity. The Xinhua news agency has this to say:

"Many Chinese still remember that after a magnitude 8.0 earthquake struck China's Sichuan province in 2008, Japanese rescuers offered valuable help, ordinary Japanese people lined up to make donations, and even some mayors and municipal legislators took to the streets to solicit contributions.

The willingness and readiness to help each other is just a natural reflection of the time-honored friendly bond between the two neighbouring Oriental civilizations. The virtue of returning the favour after receiving one runs in the bloods of both nations."

Note from Fraser:

Clarissa Tan

is a Singapore-based journalist who won a travel writing competition for The Spectator a while back. We thought CoffeeHouers might be interested in hearing an Asian view.