Copyright The Financial Times
Japan’s relations with China are at a lower point than at any time since the two countries normalised relations in 1972 and they are getting worse. Leaders in Japan who argue otherwise are trying to fool the public, or they are fooling themselves.
The spiralling downward of political relations comes amid unprecedented growth in their economic relationship. Japan’s two-way trade with China now exceeds its trade with the US. But economic interests will not necessarily put a brake on deteriorating political relations. What Japanese refer to as “cold politics, hot economics” in their relations with China cannot be a permanent state of affairs. Sooner or later, political tensions will have adverse economic consequences.
The question is whether the two countries can construct a relationship in which they accommodate each other’s power or whether they move down a road to increasing tension. The path of confrontation is not inevitable but it is easy: if China and Japan do nothing to make relations better, they will get worse. Accommodation is not impossible but it is difficult: it demands diplomatic skill and imagination. Most important, it requires the courage of leaders in both countries to resist the temptation to use confrontation to mobilise domestic support.
Moving away from confrontation requires China and Japan to forge a grand bargain. On the Japanese side this must begin with a decision to forego further prime ministerial visits to the Yasukuni shrine. Defusing the Yasukuni issue will not necessarily improve relations with China but it is the precondition for doing so.
Junichiro Koizumi, Japanese prime minister, may protest that he goes to Yasukuni simply to pay respect to young men who were drafted and died doing their best for their country. But Yasukuni is more than a shrine to honour those who died in war. It glorifies the Japan of old that sent these young men to the battlefields. Mr Koizumi cannot visit there without giving encouragement to the minority of rightwing nationalists, of whom he is decidedly not one, who want to keep that twisted version of history alive.
But if the Chinese want him to stop, they have to be prepared to meet such an action with a positive response. There is scant incentive for Japan to forego prime ministerial visits to Yasukuni if all it elicits from China are complaints that the issue of controversial history textbook revisions, allegedly insufficiently sincere Japanese apologies for wartime brutalities and so on remain. The era in which China could exploit Japanese war guilt is past. All China can accomplish by continuing to harp on history is to stoke the fires of Japanese nationalism.
Japanese leaders worry that if they accede to China’s demand on Yasukuni, the Chinese will take that as a signal to step up pressure on the Senkaku Islands dispute, natural gas exploration in the East China Sea and other issues. The problem is that the Japanese have chosen the wrong issue on which to take a stand. What country is going to defend Japan’s leaders’ insistence on making pilgrimages to a shrine dedicated to glorifying Japan’s militarist past? This is becoming more than a China or Korea problem for Japan. It is on its way to becoming a global public relations disaster.
Japan is making a huge mistake if it jsimply digs in its heels. No, there will not be war. The Chinese will not tell Japanese businessmen to invest their money elsewhere, although Japanese businessmen are looking to diversify their risks by doing exactly that, especially in India and Vietnam. But it will push Japan and China further down the road to confrontation, aggravate nationalist tendencies in both countries and destroy the hope that younger generations will put the past to rest.
China is taking a grave risk in insisting that Japan simply capitulate to its demands if it wants to reduce tensions. It is in China’s interest to have the world believe it is engaged in a “peaceful rise”. But how can China convince the world its power is benign if it is taking a confrontational and uncompromising stance toward Japan?
East Asia needs a regional order in which China, Japan and India are rivals economically and competitors for political influence, and where the US remains a balancer against any country seeking hegemony. What it must try hard to avoid is a regional order in which China and Japan are at each other’s throats and other countries are forced to take sides.
The US and other countries need to impress on Chinese and Japanese leaders the importance of seeking accommodation. If the will to strike a grand bargain is there, the modalities will not be difficult to identify. They would include joint scholarly committees to review textbooks, encouragement of so-called second-track dialogues on contentious territorial issues, more extensive cultural exchange programmes, high-level meetings that emphasise positive measures to improve relations and the like. If the political will does not exist, all countries in the region will pay a high price for Chinese and Japanese intransigence, none more so than China and Japan themselves.
The writer is professor of political science at Columbia University and visiting professor at Tokyo’s Graduate Research Institute for Policy Studies. His thoughts, expressed here, inspired a recent speech by Singapore’s senior minister