WASHINGTON — Relations between Japan and China, the two great powers of Northeast Asia, have in recent months sunk to their worst levels at least since Tiananmen Square in 1989. This past weekend’s anti-Japanese riots in China were unprecedented in the modern era, but they were only the latest in a series of highly unfortunate events.

The new Sino-Japanese tension is probably welcomed in some parts of the Pentagon. It draws Japan closer to the United States militarily — on issues like possible conflict against China in the Taiwan Strait — when most of the rest of Asia is being successfully wooed by China as it softens its image and increases its economic power. But left unchecked, worsening tensions between Asia’s greatest high-tech power and its fastest growing economy could make for a strategic rivalry that harkens back to the Europe of the early 20th century. That cannot be good for anyone’s interests.

Tension in the Japan-China relationship has powerful historical roots. Chinese citizens have never forgiven Japan for the aggression and atrocities committed during the 1930s and 1940s such as the Nanjing massacre, which left at least hundreds of thousands of Chinese dead. Ironically, during the Cold War, China did not have the luxury of nurturing such grudges — and Japan was sufficiently penitent, or at least sufficiently muzzled by postwar guilt, not to stoke the embers of painful memories. But now a strong and increasingly nationalistic China has the capacity to dream about a stronger role in future global affairs — and also to remember the past. Among other things it spreads a very critical message about Japan in the textbooks that its schoolchildren still read today.

For its part, Japan is finally emerging from the shackles of World War II, partly at the prodding of the U.S. since it now wishes a stronger global partner. This is mostly for the good. Japanese democracy has become strong, and its soft power — as well as its military, in modest doses at least — can contribute to international stability. But today’s Japanese politicians have begun to tire of apologizing for their predecessors’ crimes and sometimes let their better judgment be clouded by pride and a strengthening nationalism of their own. That in turn stokes the worst-case fears and the anti-Japanese sentiments of Chinese, Koreans, and others in the region.

For example, unlike his predecessors, Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi has made a habit of visiting Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, where many war dead — including 14 convicted class-A war criminals — are memorialized.

In the last couple years, China and Japan have rekindled old disputes over contested islands, most of them small and unpopulated. Last fall, a Chinese submarine was caught snooping in Japanese territorial waters. This winter, Tokyo agreed with Washington to consider possible conflicts over Taiwan within the explicit purview of the U.S.-Japan alliance. China has also been searching for energy resources in a seabed zone claimed by both countries.

Then earlier this month, Chinese newspaper headlines heralded that Japan’s government had approved a new school textbook that leaves out crucial information about the massacres in Nanjing and other atrocities of the 1930s and 1940s. The fact that fewer than 1 percent of Japanese schools are likely to use it, and the fact that Japanese textbooks today are far better than they were during the 1982 Sino-Japanese textbook controversy is little known among Chinese citizens.

What to do about these dangerous trends? Each of the three main countries needs to take some prompt steps to prevent the problem from getting worse.

* Japan: Tokyo’s approval of the rightwing textbooks is in fact not as bad a problem as it sounds. It is the nearly inevitable result of policy changes in the 1980s designed to improve textbooks, making them more reflective of real history and Japan’s aggressive ways of the 1930s and 1940s, in part by giving greater latitude to textbook authors. But Japan needs to find a mechanism to do even better. Perhaps a Japan-China joint textbook committee, patterned after the post-World War II Germany-Poland model (or the current Japan-South Korea joint history research committee), could help.

* China: While it has every right to harbor deep anger about the past and even some fear about the present and future Japanese character, China also needs to recognize how much has changed in Japan — and its leaders must be responsible for informing their citizens about Japan’s numerous apologies and its commitment to a peaceful foreign policy. Almost all Japanese are well aware of the country’s historical transgressions, and most textbooks refer clearly to the great suffering Japan inflicted on its neighbors in the past. Few Japanese vote for ultranationalist politicians (it must be acknowledged that the governor of Tokyo is an exception — but his post is a domestic one).

And perhaps most difficult of all, China should not be surprised that Japan is gradually outgrowing the guilt and the resulting timidity that developed after World War II. And any nationalistic tendencies in its politics are strongly countered by its postwar pacifism. In addition, both Japan and China should work toward a mutually acceptable plan for joint development of any energy sources discovered in the seabed near the disputed islets.

* United States: In addition to prodding Beijing and Tokyo to do the above, Washington needs to declare that it favors a stable and cooperative Japan-China relationship and underscore to China that it does not see the U.S.-Japan alliance as fundamentally directed against Beijing. To be sure, the alliance is a hedge against Chinese aggression. But it is also a way of dealing with acute traditional threats like North Korea in the near term, and over time a potential means for undergirding stronger regional security structures that should include China to conduct peace operations, counterpiracy missions, and of course counterterrorism.

The recently announced U.S.-China strategic dialogue is a good place for Washington to voice such reassurances, and the U.S. should support a comparable Japan-China strategic dialogue.

The above is only a partial list dealing with some of the acute problems between East Asia’s two most important countries. But by focusing on such steps promptly and seriously, Tokyo, Beijing, and Washington can return their relationships to the positive trajectory they have generally followed in recent years — and on which the region’s future peace and stability so heavily depends.

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