Brewing Tension, Perhaps More Human Rights In Asia

James Fallows of The Atlantic, breaks down the controversy as he joins host Jacki Lyden for a look ahead at Asia 2013. He looks at economic friction between China and the U.S., human rights and the China-Japan dispute over islands in the East China Sea.

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JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

As we do most weeks, we're looking at events in the news with writer James Fallows of The Atlantic, only this week, we're talking with Jim in the South Pacific. And we thought we might concentrate on Asia, Jim's special focus. Hi, there, Jim.

JAMES FALLOWS: Hello, Jacki. Nice to talk to you.

LYDEN: It's good to talk to you. So, Jim, you've written several books about China. As far as the U.S. is concerned - and the presidential election validated that - economic tensions dominated the news between China and the U.S., right?

FALLOWS: Yes. And, really, through most of the period since relations were normalized under Jimmy Carter and Deng Xiaoping more than 30 years ago, it's largely been economic frictions between the two countries, which have been managed most of the times, have gotten worse sometimes, and, of course, the human rights issue, which just is continuing in China. But especially in the last presidential election year, on both sides, economic tensions were the main issue.

LYDEN: And have human rights conditions in China, about which there has been a lot of concern here - Hillary Clinton was very much pressed to address those on her visit - have things improved at all?

FALLOWS: Well, it's really a question of time scale. Certainly, China is a much more liberal society than it was 30-plus years ago. The question is, compared with two years ago or five years ago, it's a much more mixed perspective where certain kinds of censorship and control actually seem to be increasing, recent increased crackdowns on the Internet, and still, there are the famous dissidents who remain locked up.

So the real question among people who look at China from inside and outside is whether this is another couple year shift towards greater control or whether there is an actual reversal of the progress of the last couple of decades.

LYDEN: Now, another thing that you've been looking at is the internal relations between Japan and China, which are really dominating the news there. What's going on?

In the last year, a dispute that's been stewing for several decades has come into much more prominence. And you can imagine - although not expect - actual conflict between Japan and China in the next year or so over what the Japanese call the Senkaku Islands and the Chinese called the Diaoyu Islands.

So these are some disputed islands in the East China Sea. What is significant about them?

FALLOWS: Well, the islands have almost no intrinsic importance themselves. They're several little specs of land. They're far to the south of Taiwan and off the coast of China. And you can make a case that there is some mineral rights issues that would go with who controls the seabed or fishing issues. But, really, it seems to be a more primal question of kind of national might and national dignity.

The Japanese version of the story is that over the last century and a half or so during the time they controlled Taiwan as a colonial power, they also controlled these islands as part of Okinawa. And from the Japanese point of view, when relations were normalized with the U.S. and the rest of the world after World War II, they are given control of these islands again.

The Chinese point of view is that these islands have always been part of Taiwan. And since they view Taiwan as being part of China, then therefore, it is a Chinese territory. The challenge is that for domestic political reasons in both countries, there's been a real escalation in tensions just in the past week.

LYDEN: So I understand that F-15s have actually been sent by Japan, other military planes scrambled by China. It is rather astonishing.

FALLOWS: Yes. The part of this that affects the United States is number one, anything that would involve dispute between Japan and China affects everybody else. Number two, United States has been bound since the end of the post-World War II occupation to military defense of Japan. And as part of that treaty - indeed even reaffirmed by the Congress this past week - the United States says it's committed to territorial defense of these islands on Japan's terms.

As a matter of treaty reality, United States could be pulled into this dispute. I think the U.S. interest and everybody else's is to try to find a way to damp this down.

LYDEN: James Fallows is national correspondent with The Atlantic. You can read his blog at jamesfallows.theatlantic.com. Jim, thanks very much for being with us. And happy New Year.

FALLOWS: Same to you, Jacki. Thanks very much.

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