April 8, 2005 Copyright The Asian Wall Street Journal
Deng Xiaoping must be spinning in his grave. China’s former supreme leader understood the folly of poking Japan in the eye. Alas, his successors are showing little of his wisdom, and are driving Japan more deeply into the arms of the U.S.
The growing diplomatic conflict between China and Japan has, if anything, taken on new momentum this week. The latest irritants are Tokyo’s approval of textbooks which Beijing says glorify Japan’s militarist past, and the Chinese government’s apparent decision to oppose allowing Japan to become a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council. Expansion of the council is central to Secretary General Kofi Annan’s plan to reform the U.N., but China says it will veto the package if it’s brought up now.
Deng had left his successors a very different environment. Knowing that Mao Zedong’s mad policies had set back China’s economic development for two generations, Deng wanted to build up wealth and power gradually by seeking the benefits of immersion in the global economy. Of course, Deng was a Leninist and had no intention of giving up party control.
But Deng wanted to boil the frog slowly and manage China’s rise without causing others to resist. That way, China’s neighbors would one day wake up and find they had no choice but to accommodate a dominant Middle Kingdom newly emerging from its “century of humiliation.” Deng also insisted that territorial dispute between China and Japan — over the uninhabited Senkaku-Diaoyutai islands in the East China Sea, for example — be left on the back burner.
Deng’s successors appear to lack the skill to follow his lead, and the result is that Japan is now resisting China’s constant provocations.
An example of a needless irritant is the debate over the far-flung island of Okinotori. China says it is a mere rock, not an island, and so Japan is not entitled to draw a 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone around it. This has led Tokyo’s Governor Shintaro Ishihara to make a high-profile visit to the island and to envision establishing a permanent presence there.
When the Cold War ended, China had a Japan that was all that it could have dreamed of. Pacifist, willing to apologize for its wartime atrocities, and prepared to believe that economic interdependence and large dollops of Japanese aid money would create a kind of Pan-Asian harmony. Many mainstream Japanese leaders were also starting to think that with the Cold War over, they needed neither the alliance with the United States nor the irritating presence of American bases in Japan.
But how different things look now. China’s bizarre carpings over picayune matters has made Japan become much more assertive. Many influential Japanese no longer bother to hide their conviction that China would not treat them with disrespect if Japan had nuclear weapons.
In the process, Japan is also becoming a more reliable ally of the United States. Indeed, co-operation in missile defense is rapidly solidifying the alliance in ways that have never happened before. In its latest national security outline, Japan for the first time named China (as well as China’s quasi ally North Korea) as a threat.
In their Feb. 19 security statement, the two allies also said in effect that the continued de facto independence of Taiwan was of a vital security interest of both countries. But even without this document, the Chinese politburo could not safely assume that Japan would sit on its hands if China sought to take Taiwan by force. To the contrary, given the fact that Taiwan occupies a vital position on the westward approaches to Japan from the Gulf, Japan would be most unlikely to stay out of the fray.
And with oil prices at record highs, Japan has become much more assertive about China’s drilling for gas in disputed areas of the East China Sea, claiming that Beijing will be sucking up resources owned by Japan. China has also added insult to injury by using Japanese aid money in the construction of its gas pipeline to Shanghai. No wonder Japan is planning to “graduate” China from its aid program and take it off the dole.
The turning point came with Jiang Zemin’s disastrous 1998 visit to Japan. Lacking Deng Xiaoping’s authority with the Peoples’ Liberation Army, Mr. Jiang needed to play to the PLA gallery at home. That was because he wanted to stay on as Chairman of the Central Military Commission after stepping down from his party and government posts. So Mr. Jiang behaved boorishly, gave no thanks for Japanese aid money, and kept harping on the theme of Japan’s war guilt — “remember Nanjing.” As a result, many Japanese previously well disposed towards the Chinese came to think that nothing would ever satisfy them. Since then, the constant probing of Chinese warships and survey ships in Japanese waters has continued to raise tensions with Japan.
Of course, it suits those sympathetic to China’s interests to claim that rising Sino-Japanese tensions are caused by growing Japanese “militarism.” Nothing could be further from the truth. The central problem of East Asian security is the nature of the regime in Beijing, not Tokyo. China has strategic ambition, while Japan has strategic anxieties.
Moreover, China has done much to arm its quasi-ally in Pyongyang with missiles. There is also reason to suspect that China has helped arm Pyongyang with nuclear technology, as it did with Pakistan. Arming Pakistan was meant to keep India tied down in its subcontinent, while arming North Korea was meant to help keep Japan down. Of course, that policy has backfired in relation to North Korea — because China has been unable to control North Korea, or prevent it from acting in ways that injure China’s own interests. In August 1998, the testing of a long-range North Korean missile over Japan awoke the Japanese from their long-running delusion that security problems could be ignored, or left to Uncle Sam to resolve.
Unable or unwilling to follow Deng’s sage advice, his successors are beginning to provoke the formation of a balancing coalition, with a strengthened U.S.-Japan alliance as its core. It’s all beginning to look like what happened early last century, when a “rising” Germany wanted too much too soon, and provoked others to combine against it.
Ms. Lim is professor of international relations at Nanzan University, Nagoya, and author of “The Geopolitics of East Asia.”
ROBYN LIM – The Asian Wall Street Journal
April 8, 2005 Copyright The Asian Wall Street Journal