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The Limits of Disaster Diplomacy

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China Power

The Limits of Disaster Diplomacy

Hopes that the Tohoku earthquake in Japan could lead to closer ties between China and Japan look premature.

It has been more than a month since the devastating earthquake and tsunami hit northeast Japan. During this time, China has responded by sending an international rescue team, along with material and financial assistance.

Some analysts have argued that such major disasters create an opportunity to improve the often-troubled diplomatic relations between China and Japan—an idea embedded in what‘s known as ‘disaster diplomacy’. Disaster diplomacy was evident in the aftermath of the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake in Sichuan Province in China, when Japan contributed disaster relief and humanitarian assistance. Many Chinese saw through their state media images of Japanese rescue team members shedding tears and bowing to the Chinese dead unearthed in the quake-hit areas. Such images helped improve Chinese sentiment towards Japan.

So, will this unprecedented disaster in Japan help improve bilateral relations? There are certainly signs that it already has. China was one of the first countries to express a willingness to send an international rescue team, while Chinese President Hu Jintao visited the Japanese Embassy in China to offer his condolences. He said at the time: ‘The Chinese people deeply feel the pain that the Japanese people are suffering.’

The Chinese government also pledged 30 million yuan in humanitarian assistance, 10,000 tonnes of gasoline and 10,000 tonnes of diesel. In addition, the Red Cross Society of China also offered a total of 26 million yuan to Japan.

Meanwhile, an overwhelming number of Chinese media analyses and reports have backed the view that Japan helped China at the time of Wenchuan earthquake, and that China should therefore repay that kindness. At a meeting in Kyoto on March 19, Chinese, Japanese and South Korean foreign ministers confirmed that China and South Korea would continue to co-operate over the crisis in Japan, while on April 12, Premier Wen Jiabao and Japanese Prime Minister Kan Naoto also confirmed ongoing cooperation during a phone call between the two.

Yet despite these positive signs, a close look at China’s response reveals a much more nuanced story.

China’s foreign policy permeates its disaster diplomacy and, given the complexity of China’s foreign policymaking, it’s simply not possible for the two countries to alter the fundamental direction of their bilateral relationship based on disaster diplomacy alone.

China’s prompt response to Japan’s earthquake allowed the Chinese government to explain to its people that its actions were those of a ‘responsible power,’ and should therefore be understood in the context of China’s increasing efforts to contribute to international post-disaster operations since 2003. Under Hu’s ‘New Historic Mission’ to enlarge the role of China’s military in the non-traditional security sphere, China has sent international rescue teams to Indonesia, Iran, Algeria and Pakistan among other countries. In addition, China has an international rescue training centre in Beijing, the largest of its kind in the Asia-Pacific. China’s assistance to Japan can therefore be understood as a part of its general effort to project the image of a benign rising power.

However, China’s wish to promote an image of responsible power always encounters the political realities of international relations. Although China proudly announced its international rescue effort to a domestic audience, the number of rescue team members dispatched—only 15—probably isn’t what most people would have expected (in contrast, Australia sent a 76-member rescue team, Britain a 70-member unit, France a 134-member team, and Taiwan 28).

In the event of a disaster, the host country decides which foreign contributions it will accept. According to Japan’s Asahi Shimbun, the Japanese government ranked the contributions of other countries in order of priority as determined by the Japanese government. Contributions from the United States were ranked highest at 1, while those from China were initially ranked 4. According to reports, those who deal with China policy within the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs attempted to raise the Chinese ranking, but could only get it as high as a 3.5. The Chinese government is said to have offered an 80-member rescue team and its naval hospital ship, Heping Wanshou, but these weren’t accepted.

According to the Asahi and China’s Global Times, Japan didn’t want to accept the full offer for reasons of military sensitivity — the Chinese rescue team included medical personnel from the People’s Liberation Army. Immediately after the tsunami, the only airbase still operating near the worst-hit area was Misawa, an airbase on which Japanese and US forces operate in Aomori Prefecture, and the United States and Japan were therefore reluctant to allow Chinese military personnel onto the airbase. In respect of the hospital ship, Japanese government opinion was apparently divided. However, according to the Global Times, ‘although the medical assistance is based on China’s goodwill, it’s too early to accept the Chinese navy’, given recent tensions in the South China Sea.

How did the Chinese respond to this rejection? Actually, the decision isn’t widely known about in China, with only those following the news very closely likely to have noticed. The low-key coverage may have been based on concerns within the Chinese government about the possibility of provoking anti-Japanese feelings.

Indeed, Chinese public opinion is another important dimension of China’s disaster diplomacy with Japan. As Mu Chunshan discussed here on China Power, much Chinese sentiment over the disaster in Japan centres on sympathy and condolence, but there's still evidence of some anti-Japanese gloating.

The Chinese government, for its part, has attempted to manage domestic anti-Japanese opinion, especially since the widespread 2005 anti-Japanese demonstrations in China. The People’s Daily published editorials arguing that taking pleasure in such tragedy is ‘extremely selfish and narrow-minded’, and that such a response doesn’t amount to ‘real patriotism’.

A Chinese professor of public policy in Beijing told me earlier this month that he thought ‘the most important change in the Chinese people’s perceptions of Japan recently has been that the Japanese are increasingly seen to be 'our fellow human beings, just like us'. He added: 'The Chinese also suffer many natural disasters. Looking at the suffering of the Japanese people, we realise that we share the same suffering. We can therefore extend our sympathy to the Japanese people’.

But despite the broad sympathy felt for Japan over the disaster, what matters to China now is the way the Japanese government has responded. One incident well-known among the Chinese people is that China sent emergency relief materials to Japan, but the Japanese government requested China send them directly to the worst-hit areas rather than to a central distribution point. The Chinese ambassador to Japan complained at a news conference that the Japanese government should make the process of accepting Chinese assistance smoother. On the nuclear crisis too, the Chinese government raised concerns about Japan’s decision to release contaminated water into the sea without telling the Chinese government beforehand. A Chinese professor of public policy told me that it’s Japan that needs to be a ‘responsible power’. This view is also reflected in Chinese internet discussions.

Of course, China is only one voice among many raising these types of concerns. However, whereas it has typically been China that is isolated and on the receiving end of such criticism, the complaints about Japan offer an interesting switch with China now joining in with other nations. Have Chinese intellectuals internalised the idea of how a responsible power should act, and are they now projecting the idea onto China’s relationship with Japan?

Either way, it’s clear that disaster diplomacy hasn’t transformed the overall picture of Sino-Japanese relations — in fact, disaster diplomacy itself is actually shaped by broad international and domestic political relationships. The discourse over being a ‘responsible’ power, the complexity of China-Japan-US relations, and the Chinese government’s attempt to manage public opinion all suggest that disaster diplomacy hasn’t meaningfully altered the bilateral relationship.

Nevertheless, the importance of people-to-people relations in disaster diplomacy shouldn’t be underestimated — beneath the prickly problems of diplomacy and defence in the Sino-Japan relationship lay deep layers of people-to-people relationships. The Chinese response to Japan’s disaster demonstrates a more mature Chinese perception of Japan, which may still prove to be a foundation on which to build healthier bilateral relations in the future.

Miwa Hirono is RCUK Research Fellow at the School of Politics and International Relations and China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham.