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29 October, 2010

Three Headlines and A Moral

I consider it a great blessing to live in an age where it is possible to read within minutes of their publication the words of men and women who live thousands of miles away. The internet allows the unparalleled opportunity to understand the narratives of peoples world over - and in real time. I pity international observers and pundits who do not grasp this opportunity. Often a headline written a globe away will tell more to the observant reader than can be gleaned from an entire article written closer to home.

Please consider the following:

Masami Ito. Japan Times. 26 October 2010.

The Times of India. 26 October 2010.

Jonathan Day. Xinhua News. 26 October 2010.

These three headlines were all written within 12 hours of the others. All concern an agreement made by Dr. Manmohan Singh, Prime Minister of India, and Mr. Nato Kan, the Prime Minister of Japan, on the 25th of this month. And, when read together, more can be learned from these headlines than from most anything written about the agreement in the Western press.

All three papers are written in English.  This is unusual for any paper printed in Japan or China; but a small proportion of Chinese and Japanese consumers can read an entire article written in English with ease. Conversely, it is quite natural for a national Indian paper to be written entirely in English, as most educated Indians are fluent in the language. It can be surmised that the target audience of the Times of India is the Indian upper class; Xinhua's English edition and the Japan Times are mostly read by English-speaking expats living in East Asia. Both Xinhua and Japan Times employ foreign reporters, but the editors of both papers are nationals. The titles of most newspaper articles, be they published in America or elsewhere, are written not by the reporter but by the editor tasked with overseeing the article in question. One can imagine that for the state-run Xinhua this oversight will be strict.

This is the immediate context needed to interpret the headlines written above. Written by newspaper editors, they are not policy positions and may not reflect the opinions of the citizens or statesmen of the nations concerned. However, they do allow us to sketch the attitudes of at least one part of each country's opinion-crafting elite. 

The Japan Times piece is an interesting case example. India, it should remembered, faced a nuclear trade ban for more than thirty years after it conducted its first atomic test in 1974. For much of the last fifteen years Tokyo, the greatest enemy nuclear weapons have among the great powers, has attempted to cajole New Delhi into ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in exchange for Japan's help in convincing the Nuclear Supplier Group to lift these bans. The Indians did not play along -- they didn't need to. In 2005 the United States and India announced that they were working on a framework for a new civilian nuclear cooperation deal, and the diplomatic clout of the United States was enough to force the deal through without any objections from the Nuclear Supplier Group. By 2008, when the agreement came into effect, Japanese diplomats had changed their tune: Tokyo "hoped" that India would ratify the treaty, but even if they did not future civilian cooperation would be on "the agenda".

The reasons for Japan's about face are clear enough. Tokyo's distaste for India's possession and use of nuclear weapons could not be transformed into any policy that might actually limit the use or possession of these weapons. It was a fight Japan could not win - and a fight in which Japan stood to gain much in the losing. Eager to enter the market while it remained open, Tokyo followed in the steps of the Washington,. Paris, and Moscow by opening the door for their own (lucrative) nuclear deal with New Delhi. This culminated in the agreement made between Mr. Kan and Mr. Singh on the 25th.

It has been interesting to observe the coverage of this event in the Japanese press. As the Japan Times headline suggests, many Japanese outlets have downplayed the nuclear character of Mr. Singh  and Mr. Kan's announcement. This is in some ways justified: the agreement is more than a nuclear deal, and contains many a provision promising to sweep away a swath of tariffs in both countries. The omission of the word 'nuclear' in the headline, however, is quite telling. Japan's economy has slumped over the last few months and the LDP has made it a point to keep economic issues at the center of the nation's political debates. Most Japanese citizens are more concerned with economic issues than foreign affairs; it should be no suprise that Japanese newspapers follow suit.

The Times of India headline says most when placed next to the Japan Times.  Where the Japanese paper emphasized trade, the Indian paper goes to great lengths to ignore it. Not only is the trade agreement nowhere to be found in the title, but there are only a few sparse references to trade in the entire body of the article's text! This too is telling. India's economic performance is not a matter of great concern; the same cannot be said of its energy needs. Moreover, the acceptance of India's military nuclear forces by Japan and other great powers is a matter of pride for many Indian analysts and editors. It signals India's entry into the club of respected great powers, and as this year's Commonwealth Games betrayed, there are few things most Indian statesmen want so badly as a spot at that hallowed table. As it strengthens the ties between India and Japan the trade deal is useful - but it is seen only as a sideshow to the main event.

The Xinhua title suggests that many Chinese opinion makers agree with this. The free trade deal is not the main event. But then again, neither is Japanese-Indian civilian nuclear cooperation. Both are but subsets of a much larger affair: India and Japan's growing relationship. I have noticed (and here noted) a sort of paranoia that pervades Chinese perceptions and representations of China's neighbors. By labeling the agreement "an alliance" Xinhua's editors play off of - or confirm their own belief in - these fears. They see in free trade and nuclear cooperation the seeds of alliance because strong strategic encirclement is the nightmare that keeps Chinese diplomats and statesmen up at night. China is quick to claim (justly, in my view) that the United States is trying to use its neighbors against her. We should not be surprised when Chinese pundits and analysts see shadows of the monster they spend so much time decrying.

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