Copyright The International Herald Tribune
FRIDAY, MAY 20, 2005
NEW YORK The oft-cited reasons for the widening divide between China and Japan – Japan’s relatively unrepentant attitude toward its World War II history and the growing displays of resentment by many Chinese – are of course far from the whole story. While anxiety over the rift extends well beyond the region, the real source of the conflict is a fundamental reordering of power in Asia. China’s rising political, economic and military power and Japan’s reaction to it are generating a massive geopolitical shift there.
China vigorously opposes Japan’s bid to win a permanent seat in the UN Security Council. Japan has angered China by publicly expressing support for Taiwan’s security. China is anxious over the ever more robust U.S.-Japanese strategic relationship and the possibility of Japan’s remilitarization.
Chinese-Japanese territorial disputes in the East China Sea are growing as speculation rises over the amount of oil and gas that may be buried under its seabed. Despite contested claims, China is scheduled to begin drilling for oil there in August, and Japan appears poised to announce drilling of its own. If the drilling goes forward, it will substantially up the ante in the growing political conflict. It would force Japan to provide its shipping with a naval escort – a move that would risk direct military confrontation and send markets tumbling.
But the main reason tensions will continue to rise is more structural: The Chinese and Japanese governments have limited ability, and incentive, to ease their angry populations back from the brink. On the Chinese side, Beijing has less-than-perfect control over the actions of local officials. Last year, there were reportedly some 47,000 demonstrations in China. Nearly all took place outside Shanghai and Beijing and were aimed at local – not central – authorities. China’s provincial officials therefore have good reason to capitalize on anti-Japanese sentiment and to channel growing social discontent toward Tokyo.
Essentially, China’s provincial leaders are again over-fulfilling their quotas: Beijing’s efforts to contain the overheating of the Chinese economy have largely been thwarted by local authorities who over-invest in pet projects. Local officials are now competing against one another to over-supply China with nationalist fury at Japan.
Japanese politicians are fanning the flames as well. The faction within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party loyal to the party’s secretary general, Shinzo Abe, is positioning itself for a post-Koizumi era in Japanese politics. They’ve discovered that reinvigorating Japanese nationalism at China’s expense is an effective way of containing the growing popularity of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan and a lot easier than tackling economic reform.
China-bashing is simply a winning formula in Japanese domestic politics. That’s part of why Japan has now expressed a clear interest in Taiwan’s security, pushed the envelope on territorial disputes with Beijing, and aligned its position on North Korea’s nuclear program more closely with Washington’s.
As a result, while both sides have ample reason to ensure the tensions don’t do lasting damage to their booming trade and investment, the list of cumulative grievances – growing by the week – is driving a dangerous wave of animosity that no one fully controls. And the conflict has not yet crested.
That this reordering of power relations is producing only uncertainty and aggressiveness in Asia makes it particularly unfortunate that there are no viable multilateral institutions in the region capable of arbitrating the clash of interests or even hosting face-to-face meetings between Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and President Hu Jintao (who, for other reasons, rarely communicate directly).
There is, though, a precedent for the problem: Europe a hundred years ago. No international institutions existed there either that might have enabled European powers to hash out their disputes and to resolve conflicts. China and Japan will just have to sort out their differences on their own – and without a Metternich to help them out.
It’s in the interests of international stability that they get to work. The geopolitical and economic stakes are rising as quickly as the rivalry’s intensity.
(Ian Bremmer is president of the Eurasia Group and a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute. )