THIS month the missile destroyer Takanami will visit China, the first Japanese warship to do so since World War II.
This is to return the visit by China’s navy destroyer Shenzhen, which visited Tokyo in November. That was the first Chinese warship to do so since 1891, this time as part of a friendly exchange between the navies.
Meanwhile, China and Vietnam began this week by agreeing to settle jurisdiction issues, begin joint development and mount a joint survey in waters between their territories just outside Beibu Bay.
This follows from an agreement on demarcation and fisheries there, the first legal document signed between China and any of its eight maritime neighbours.
The event of the year, however, would be this August’s Beijing Olympics, seen as a showcase of a rising China in the 21st-century. This is the first time the prestigious Olympic Games would be hosted by an Asian country or the developing world.
But already the lead-up period has seen controversy, particularly over the Olympic torch relay after Tibetan rioting in Lhasa and China’s clampdown there in March.
This was the first time the relay traversed six continents, so it became a convenient target for protesters. Given the current negative Western perceptions of developing nations from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, the Tibet issue combined with China’s hulking rise made the Beijing Olympics easy prey for China-bashing.
The older generation in China was not so surprised, mindful of how the Dalai Lama had reportedly collaborated with the CIA in the 1956-59 Tibet uprising.
The younger generation was particularly incensed this time, after watching video clips of ethnic Chinese being attacked by Tibetans and then bearing the brunt of Western criticisms of victimhood and allegations of state repression.
Those familiar with Western-sponsored NGOs critical of China on a range of issues were not surprised at all. Some of these NGOs had revealed that they had been planning such action for more than a year.
But China critics had trouble enlarging the controversy by linking Lhasa’s clampdown with the 1989 Tiananmen protests, since the “Tiananmen generation” was now with the authorities in rejecting China-bashing. These involve youths yet to be socially defined, not just an emerging middle-class that critics say the state had bought off with prosperity.
The inadvertent result of mob violence in Lhasa is a more unified China, as Chinese close ranks in the face of largely Western protests. Meanwhile the Olympics looms closer, poised to be a moment for Chinese nationalism beyond a mere showcase of national pride.
Nonetheless, Chinese society also grows more complex internally. The May 12 earthquake and its aftermath have unearthed greater social activism, from volunteer rescue work to a civil society clamour over issues like a school collapse that buried 9,000 pupils and teachers.
Much of this contrasts with Myanmar’s “hands-off” policy after the devastation by Cyclone Nargis. Clueless commentators like some on CNN expressed surprise at the contrast, oblivious to how China is a rising nation with an “opening” policy for decades, while Myanmar is in the opposite position and direction.
What now appears to Chinese nationals as yawning gaps of Western ignorance have a long history of prejudice. In a recent People’s Daily interview, a Frenchman typically assumed that Tibet was a democracy before 1959, among other things.
The December 2004 tsunami that devastated parts of Asia had so prodded China’s regional reflex as to lead to its largest-ever foreign relief operation, giving material aid, offering rescue personnel and adopting ravaged islands in the Maldives.
Yet some Western analysts did not notice it. In an otherwise upbeat assessment of China and South-East Asia, Prof Bronson Percival of the US Naval War College said this week that China had contributed “nothing” to the tsunami-hit region.
More yawning gaps may be exposed between now and August, but are unlikely to end there.