Japan and China take a collision course

Copyright The International Herald Tribune
Howard W. French
SHANGHAI There are two trains running in East Asia, each fueled by hollow rhetoric and propelled by dangerous, self-deluding myths. Each of these locomotives heeds only its own signal, and the danger grows by the season that, if there is no coordination, a huge wreck might one day ensue.
The two trains are, of course, China and Japan. The former, long decrepit, its wheels rusted by decades of Communist mismanagement of the economy, has lately worked up a huge head of steam. China surprised the world by announcing it had “discovered” previously unaccounted-for economic production equivalent to the output of entire countries, say, Austria, for example. Whoops: “Off the tracks! We’re coming through!”
The other country, Japan, a longtime economic superstar, had been in the doldrums for over a decade, a victim of high costs, excessive regulation and a slow-to-adapt mentality in a fast-changing world. Japan is enjoying something of a revival, at least in a near-term economic sense, and today, the country’s conservative leadership is feeling its oats, evidently in no mood to play second fiddle to an accelerating China.
Competition exists between these two countries on many levels, as do animosities both recent and old. Strangest and most worrisome of all, though, is the jockeying in the realm of global image and perception.
Leaders in Beijing are keenly aware that any nation so large and moving so fast as China is liable to frighten others. Their oddly archaic strategy for putting the world at ease, like an old Maoist public morals campaign replete with stiff slogans and blazing banners refashioned for external consumption, is to shout from every rooftop that China is, has been and always will be a peaceful nation. Perhaps if it is repeated enough, the naÔve hope seems to be, people will become convinced.
Japan is, of course, the original peaceful power, its U.S.-written Constitution literally forbidding the country to engage in war, or to even have an army. Japan is more eager than ever today to win a seat on the United Nations Security Council, and its campaign rests on the country’s history since 1945 not only of peace, but of encouraging peace and development throughout the world, mostly through generous financial aid.
The problem with each country’s campaign is that it is undermined by the very actions of the government that authored it. This has been increasingly clear for months now as tensions between Japan and China have risen, and never more so than in recent days amid the static that passes for diplomatic dialogue across the narrow swath of the Pacific that separates them.
On successive days last week Beijing and Tokyo made important sallies in their global image war. China first issued a 32-page white paper whose one big thought was that its rise – although that word itself was carefully avoided – was a threat to no one. “China’s road of peaceful development is a brand-new one for mankind in the pursuit of civilization and progress,” it claimed fulsomely.
The very next day, Japan’s recently named foreign minister, Taro Aso, gave two speeches in which he discussed China, calling that country a “considerable threat,” in what amounted to a remarkable departure for Japanese diplomacy.
Whether China’s rapid growth should be seen primarily as a threat or as an opportunity, Aso got a couple of things right. “If Japan’s self-defense budget grows by 10 percent every year, wouldn’t China see it as a threat?” he asked. “Of course it would.”
Complaining that China has refused to meet with Junichiro Koizumi, who has angered Beijing by visiting Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine five times as prime minister, Aso also correctly said, “Nothing proceeds unless we have an opportunity to talk.”
If Japan’s foreign minister had left it at that, he might have scored some points for his country. But other remarks by the politician – a man whose oratory about Japan’s emperor system and supposed mono-ethnic makeup almost smacks of 1930s militarism – betrayed his unhealthy platform. Dismissing anger in China and other countries over visits to Yasukuni, where 14 leading war criminals are enshrined along with two million other Japanese veterans, Aso said that “it is extremely difficult to have the same kind of understanding of history.”
The problem, of course, is not such imagined difficulty. Rather, it is the fact that Aso and many others among the conservative politicians who dominate the scene in Japan have never shown much sign of even trying. Even today, even while issuing pro forma apologies, they pretend that Japan’s prosperity was won by the sacrifice of its marauding soldiers.
Because peace in East Asia is of immense importance to mankind, it is important to cut through the baloney of the region’s two pre-eminent powers before there is a collision. Japan will never get the respect it otherwise deserves on the world stage until it can generate a presentable consensus view of the events of the last century, one that recognizes Japanese aggression and atrocities for what they were. There’s not enough money in the world to change this fact.
China will never convince others that it is an unthreatening power as long as it cannot forge normal relations with Japan, including regular political dialogue at the highest levels. Beijing must learn to let Japan’s offensive behavior be Japan’s problem.
Neither country can be considered much of a force for peace in the world until it is more of a force for peace in its home region. The tissue of intraregional cooperation is thicker in parts of Africa than it is in East Asia. How is it that three of the world’s biggest economies, including South Korea – all neighbors – haven’t even begun talking about community? How is it, too, that there is no security framework linking them?
This brings one to the question of traffic cop, a role traditionally played in these parts by the United States. There are signs that some in Washington seek to pump up Japan as a counterweight to China, nudging Tokyo away from its pacifist Constitution and roping it into antimissile programs and the like.
A good traffic cop uses all of his signals, and American influence with Japan must be used as a spur to overcoming its history and engaging its neighbor. Without that, defense cooperation alone will not be enough to avert a wreck.

One thought on “Japan and China take a collision course”

  1. Mr. French,
    Interesting article. I enjoy reading your writing. However, with regard to the following:
    “Because peace in East Asia is of immense importance to mankind…”
    “A good traffic cop uses all of his signals…”
    Wouldn’t it be better to use gender-neutral language in these cases?
    Thank you,

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