LOS ANGELES — It is true that the issue of Japan’s behavior a half century ago is not moot, especially if there is reason to believe that aggression against its neighbors is not truly a thing of the distant past.

But this issue, grave as it is, is separate from the questions of (a) whether U.N. Security Council reform is urgent, (b) whether Asia as a whole and as a region would be helped by the inclusion of a second permanent member from Asia, and (c) whether that next permanent member should be Japan.

The correct answers are (a) yes, (b) yes, and (c) yes.

Distinctions are very important. It is true that the periodic Yasukuni Shrine visits of Japan’s current prime minister are clearly unhelpful and are understandably regarded by many Asians as insensitive and rude, to say the very least.

Two main points here: (a) Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has a weird reverence for Japan’s war dead. He elevates them to some mystic status and feels it’s his duty to pay his respects. I cannot tell you how many government officials in Tokyo are praying that the next prime minister will take a different view, stay away from the shrine and so lower the Sino-Japanese (and Korean) diplomatic temperature.

But (b) China must understand that not everyone Japan is a closet militarist. It should also be kept in mind that China, which signed a peace treaty with Japan, is no longer in an official state of war, and might want to reflect on the meaning of its own iconic policy of “noninterference in each other’s internal affairs.”

That principle of Chinese foreign policy is enshrined in its constitution of 1982, and proudly trumpeted in the official textbook “Diplomacy of Contemporary China.” This sweeping perspective of the Chinese view of international developments after the end of World War II — translated into English in 1990 (New Horizon Press, Hong Kong) — was edited by Chinese foreign-affairs authorities, including Qian Qichen, a former vice premier who for years was China’s internationally respected foreign minister.

In this classic volume, the mythic figure of Premier Zhou Enlai is quoted to give the status of canonic doctrine to the principle of non-interference in another country’s internal affairs. “There are bound to be some problems between any two big countries. . . ,” Zhou is quoted as saying. “Any outstanding issue with mature conditions may be put forward for discussion in accordance with these principles.”

OK — so then Chinese leaders should also reflect on the historic 1978 words of then-Deputy Premier Deng Xiaoping, also quoted in “Diplomacy.” Referring then to the many Japanese people of good intentions who had worked hard to normalize Sino-Japanese relations, the man who was to become China’s great reformer said: “While drinking water, one should not forget those who dug the well. For years, many Japanese friends have made unremitting efforts to promote Sino-Japanese friendship. . . .”

This fair-minded observation still rings true today, and Beijing should consider that many Japanese hate the regrettable aspects of their past and value the break from them. They also welcome the growing economic relationship with China and wish their giant neighbor a truly peaceful evolution, even as they increasingly accept the probability of being eclipsed by China. After all, many Japanese have major investments in China.

Even so, right now, Sino-Japanese relations have been sucked into the scary undertow of the past, and if the tide continues to run against peaceful regional cooperation, the ultimate casualty will be Asia itself.

To avoid this end, at least two things need to happen:

The first is that Beijing needs to keep its domestic anti-Tokyo dogs of war at bay. It can do this — and has begun to do this. Good. The recent waves of anti-Japanese demonstrations are frightening. However encouraged or at least tolerated by the Chinese government, they show the depth of feeling on the mainland. This hostility to Japan, which by the way is not confined in Asia to the mainland, will only be exacerbated by inexact and unrefined diplomacy.

So, the second thing is that Tokyo must show respect for China’s principle of non-interference and reiterate, publicly, its acceptance of the one-China policy that goes back decades.

A recent U.S.-Japan communique that could easily have been read as committing Tokyo to interfere in the uneasy relationship between the mainland and Taiwan infuriated Beijing. Tokyo, if it wants to maintain good relations with Beijing, needs to avoid the “Bermuda Triangle” over the Taiwan Straits involving Taiwan, China and the United States.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.