Geopolitics

Japan V. China: The Kabuki Theater Standoff Over Senkaku Islands

Analysis: China and Japan have little room for compromise as tensions rise over the disputed Senkaku islands. Still, it is part of a broader dance between the region's two biggest powers that is short-wired -- at least for now -- to try and avoid

A montage created with a section of a 1969 map of the Senkaku Islands (PRC/BH)
A montage created with a section of a 1969 map of the Senkaku Islands (PRC/BH)
Tao Duan Fan

BEIJING - For two days, there was rampant speculation across Asia about whether Uichiro Niwa, Japan's 
Ambassador to China, would return to Beijing. But after his sudden "temporary recall" on 
July 15 to discuss the dispute over the Senkaku Islands (also known as the Diaoyu Islands
in China), Niwa calmly came back to the Chinese capital the next day.

Judging from Japan's official attitude, it looks like the 
tension between China and Japan won't escalate. At least for now. Nevertheless, rumors about Ambassador Niwa's 
possible dismissal continue to circulate, and we are still short of any sort of détente either.

Niwa is considered by some observers in both China and Japan as coming from the "China
 school". He has on several occasions made remarks about hot issues such as the Senkaku 
dispute in a different tone from that of Japan's right-wing establishment, creating the appearance that there is a difference in policy between his and that of the prime minister, the parliament, as well as the Democratic
 Party.

This all helps to explain the non-stop rumors about him being replaced. And
 though he in fact quickly returned to China after the sudden recall, the Japanese Foreign Ministry "s 
official line is that "An ambassador is required to
 accurately convey the Japanese government's position," which does seem to be a subtle
 way of warning him.

Some worry that if Niwa is ever replaced, the bridge of Sino-
Japanese relations would be broken. This is probably a superfluous concern since the dispute 
over the Senkaku Islands isn't really caused by "inaccurate communication" 
between the two countries, nor by any "misunderstanding" amongst the diplomats.

On the contrary, both countries have always had a clear understanding of each
 other's position. They both understand very well that the
 reason why it's so difficult to reconcile their divergence is because it's a question of principle, not because of any communication missteps.

In
 short, whether or not Niwa is Japan's ambassador to China will make little difference. 
There is no shortage of "China school" adherents in Japan's diplomatic corps. It's just 
that Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda is forced to select someone from his own
 party, restricting the number of qualified candidates.

Up to now, both China and Japan have made it clear that Senkaku 
Island's sovereignty is a fundamental matter of principle, and both consider their respective position 
is "irrefutable." If China at least admits that there is a dispute, and the 
necessity of negotiation, Japan doesn't even acknowledge the existence of such an issue. 
In the past, the two governments have tacitly shelved this topic, leaving the contradiction silently stewing for too long.

Tokyo's nationalist governor, Shintaro Ishihara, has offered to buy the islands and "protect" 
them from Chinese intrusion.
 The rise of China has largely increased Japanese people's anxiety.

Playing to the populists

Coupled with
 the vicissitudes of Japan's domestic politics, various politicians race
 to wield magic weapons such as nationalism and toughness towards China
 to please the populists at home.

Meanwhile, as China has grown stronger, the trump cards played by Japanese politicians, trumpeting the "Landing of 
the Senkaku," are bound to prompt the Chinese to respond in kind. This 
explains why collisions between the two countries are becoming more and
 more intense.

Still, before going too far, we must remember that China and Japan are after all neighboring nations, intricately linked on both economic and security interests.

They are also
 the world's second and third biggest economies, and the strongest powers in
 the Far East. Though this tension between the big country and the rich country has much riding on it, it's at the same time the conflict the least likely to explode
 since they have the most to gain if the region stays peaceful and secure.

For this reason, even if Sino-Japanese conflicts often seem on the verge of
 blowing up, someone always pulls on the emergency brake in the nick of time.

"Seeking common ground while reserving differences…" This is the concept that drives the way Chinese and Japanese, as old enemies as well as old partners, like to think about each other. For now, it is probably sufficient for keeping the peace.

Read the original article in Chinese

Photo - PRC/BH

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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