China in Transition

Japan's Two-Faced Diplomacy in Shenyang

Chi Hung KWAN
Consulting Fellow, RIETI

China has cast a shadow over bilateral relations at a time when Japan and China should be celebrating the 30th anniversary of normalized relations.

Five North Korean refugees tried to run into the Japanese Consulate General in an attempt to find refuge overseas, and Chinese police officers, trying to prevent this, stepped into the consular premises. The scene, captured on videotape, has been played and replayed on news programs and variety shows on TV. And the outcome of the event has become the focus of public attention.

The Japanese government is demanding an apology from the Chinese government for infringing upon its sovereignty and violating the 1963 Vienna convention on consular relations, which guarantees the inviolability of consular premises. The Japanese media, attuned to the government's position, are also criticizing China.

Members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party have come up with near-paranoid reactions, making such remarks as, "This is tantamount to encroachment upon the territory. If it were not with Japan, this incident would have turned into a war," and "Japan has neither national pride nor dignity," and "This can be described as a case that China abducted (the North Korean refugees) by exercising its state power within the premises (of the Japanese consulate general)."

Beijing's counterargument is that the Vienna convention obliges China, as a host country, to take necessary measures to secure the safety of consulate generals in the country. So, the acts by the Chinese police officers at the Japanese Consulate General in Shenyang are in line with provisions under the convention.

Meanwhile, pointing out that China did not make an issue when the Japanese police "invaded" the Chinese Embassy in May 1985, Beijing is urging Japan to recover its cool, take the Chinese police officers' acts in good faith, and prevent the incident from becoming more serious. Reflecting this government view, the Chinese media remain extremely discrete in their coverage of the incident. Behind the Chinese government's position is a concern about fueling the already-rising anti-Japan sentiment in China, following Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's recent visit to the Yasukuni Shrine. It is not, as some Japanese critics have insisted, a reluctance to reveal the Chinese government's blunder before its people. From China's point of view, good intentions that deserve appreciation have been taken as acts of ill intention. This turn of events would be surely unpleasant for China. Should the Chinese police abandon their duty to guard a Japanese consulate general and do nothing to prevent refugees from entering its precinct, it would be inundated with thousands of refugees, not just the five, as in this particular incident.

An unguarded consulate general would be undesirable for the Japanese government, given its constraints in accepting refugees and the prospect of the inevitable deterioration of its relations with North Korea. In a meeting at the Japanese Embassy in Beijing, Ambassador Koreshige Anami reportedly instructed his staff to keep "suspicious individuals" out of the premises of the embassy and consulates and "expel" them. A remark like this should not be taken as the ambassador's personal gaffe but as the honest feeling of the Japanese government.

Aside from the sovereignty problem, the issue of human rights has been another focal point of the ongoing controversy. Indeed, viewers feel sympathy for the five refugees as they watch the scene on TV. But we should also remember the millions of other North Koreans, and hundreds of millions of war- and famine-stricken refugees in other areas.

Japan, in principle, accepts refugees on humanitarian grounds. In its heart, however, it does not welcome refugees. This is evident from the fact that only 24 people were given refugee status in Japan in 2001; and a mere 284 have been given this status since 1982. It is nothing but arrant hypocrisy for Japan to criticize China from a human rights standpoint when it shuts its eyes to its own negative attitude in accepting refugees. Is Japan, which had no intention to accept any North Korean refugees in the first place, entitled to have a say in the treatment of these five?

May 17, 2002

May 17, 2002