Copyright The Financial Times March 30, 2017
“As China’s self-regard has swollen, along with its newfound power, Japan has returned to the center of the Chinese gaze in the form of a bull’s-eye,”
As Trump and Xi prepare to meet, Gideon Rachman looks at the tests ahead for the world’s most important bilateral relationship
An excerpt follows. To read the entire piece, please click here.
“A big difference, however, may be that Xi’s vision of the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” seems much more fully formed than that of the new US president. As the journalist and academic Howard French tells it in Everything Under the Heavens, China’s leader is essentially seeking to return his country to the position it has traditionally exercised in Asia — as the dominant regional power, to which other countries must defer or pay tribute. “For the better part of two millennia, the norm for China, from its own perspective, was a natural dominion over everything under heaven,” writes French. In practice, this meant “a vast and familiar swath of geography that consisted of nearby Central Asia, Southeast Asia and East Asia”. This traditional Chinese aspiration had to be shelved for almost two centuries. From the mid-19th century, China was humbled by powerful outsiders — first European imperialists and then Japanese invaders. After the Communist victory in 1949, the country went through a period of economic and cultural isolation and relative poverty. By the late 1970s, when China reversed course and embraced capitalism and foreign investment, it had fallen far behind the “tiger economies” of east Asia. In its catch-up phase, China pursued friendly relations with its capitalist neighbours — including Japan, its old wartime foe. These Asian neighbours were important sources of expertise and foreign investment for a country that was desperate to make up for lost time. But French, like many observers, sees a change of mood and tone in China’s relationship with the outside world since Xi came to power in 2012. The primary target of Chinese muscle-flexing and ambition is not, in fact, the US — but Japan. “As China’s self-regard has swollen, along with its newfound power, Japan has returned to the center of the Chinese gaze in the form of a bull’s-eye,” writes French. Much Chinese resentment of Japan is focused on the Japanese invasion and occupation of the 1930s. But, as French makes clear, the roots of the resentment stretch deep into the 19th century. In one of the most compelling sections of this fluent and interesting book, French shows the importance of Japan’s annexation of the Ryukyu Islands in 1879. These islands retain their significance today, as they include Okinawa — the site of the largest US military base in east Asia. The current focus of territorial disputes between Japan and China is the much smaller set of islands known as the Senkakus to the Japanese and the Diaoyu to the Chinese. But reading French’s book, one cannot but wonder whether Chinese ambitions will also eventually encompass Okinawa.”