Testing times for Japan, China

by Brad Glosserman

HONOLULU — Taro Aso’s recent comment in plain words about the “threat” posed by China’s military modernization effort is as remarkable as the supposed threat itself. The readiness of a Japanese Cabinet official, and a foreign minister no less, to publicly acknowledge and criticize China’s military buildup marks a profound departure from past practice.

His comment underscores the fact that two processes are occurring simultaneously in East Asia — the “rise of China” and the evolution of Japanese security policy. These changes are pushing Asia into uncharted territory. Never before has the region had to accommodate two “rising powers” at the same time.

Development has stoked understandable and justifiable pride in China, fueling both a heady nationalism and a defense modernization effort that unnerves many foreign observers. Seventeen years of double-digit defense spending increases, steady expansion of ballistic-missile inventories, nuclear-weapons development, and the pursuit of a blue-water navy all appear disproportionate to any security threat that China may face.

Chinese assurances that there’s no need to worry, explained most recently in “China’s Peaceful Development Road,” a white paper by the State Council, have not been convincing.

Chinese foreign-policy makers and experts are equally disconcerted by trends in Japan. Since the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Japan has slowly shed its reticence about involvement in international security affairs. This process has proceeded from authorization of participation in United Nations peacekeeping missions to the revitalization of the security alliance with the United States, and now includes a domestic political debate about the constitution and a fundamental alteration of the terms upon which Japan engages the world.

Many factors are behind this evolution, but a key component of this shift is a generational change in Japan and a growing consensus that Japan should be judged by its contributions to international peace and security since the end of World War II rather than the abuses committed by the Imperial regime during the first half of the 20th century. This record affords Japan the right to challenge the security policies of its neighbors, as Aso has done, and to honor the Japanese who died fighting for their country. But as Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has repeatedly explained, in keeping with Japan’s new outlook, that remembrance honors their sacrifice, not the policies of the government that forced them to fight.

Yet in every trip through the region that I have taken in the last two years, Chinese anger at Japanese policy has been palpable — and it’s mounting. In Shanghai earlier this month, at least half of the time that was supposed to be spent discussing U.S. interests in East Asia was taken up with complaints about Japanese behavior. Similar concerns were on display at a recent multilateral security conference in Jakarta.

What should be most troubling to Japan is that Chinese (and Korean) anger is now matched by bewilderment in the rest of the region. Governments and publics don’t understand why Tokyo seems intent to go out of its way to antagonize Beijing. They are ready to accept a larger regional security role for Japan — and even welcome it as a balance against China — but they don’t want a new Cold War in Asia and certainly don’t want to be forced to choose between the region’s two giants.

In Shanghai and Southeast Asia, there was suspicion that the U.S. is pleased by this situation and might even be encouraging Japan. Nothing could be further from the truth. If Japan is isolated within the region, the Japan-U.S. alliance is diminished. That explains rising concern among U.S. diplomats and observers about Japanese behavior.

It is unclear how far relations between Japan and China will deteriorate. There are reports that Beijing has given up on Koizumi and that the Chinese leadership will wait until he leaves office before it makes any further overtures to Japan. This assumes that the relationship can be managed reasonably well at lower levels and that “hot economics” will prevent any sharp downturn in the relationship. Those are dangerous assumptions.

The deteriorating relations highlight two points:

* Asia faces a new and unsettling situation. The simultaneous transformation of China and Japan is unprecedented. Never before have the two countries had to deal with each other as equals. In addition, both societies are in transition. This novel political environment puts a premium on creativity when responding to problems. Regional experts insist that Asia has studied history and its future will not be Europe’s past. That assertion will be put to the test.

* Particularly troubling, given the first point, is that key actors in Asia have tunnel vision; they cannot see events from their partner’s perspective. They’re quick to voice their own grievances but can’t understand why their own assurances are not accepted. Views are becoming more rigid and ostensibly diplomatic language is becoming increasingly righteous, both of which make compromise more difficult.

Japan and China must find common cause to deal with the many concerns they share and the problems that affect them both. Strategic dialogue and military transparency is an obvious focus: any forum that brings together the two security establishments for serious, structured discussions is to be encouraged.

Another focus of cooperation or competition will be energy. Here, creativity will be at a premium. The two countries could devise a win-win response that embraces joint projects that split development costs of East China Sea resources, shares the resources produced and has Japan provide at concessionary prices “green,” energy-efficient technologies that help cut China’s demand.

In addition to addressing a host of issues — territorial disputes, energy supply and demand, pollution, technology transfers — it allows the two countries to begin building the trust and confidence that is the bedrock of a sustainable partnership.

That may not sound like much, but given the growing antagonism between the two countries, small steps may be all that is possible right now.