LOS ANGELES — The people of China and Japan deserve better leadership at the top than they have been getting. But better leadership is not immediately in prospect for either ancient nation. That means relations between the two giant economies will probably get worse, when improvement is urgently needed before some part of East Asia blows up.

Perhaps the Japanese malaise is the more obvious of the two problems. Except for the five-year reign of Junichiro Koizumi (2001-2006), Japan hasn’t had continuity at the top since the glory years of Yasuhiro Nakasone (1982-1987). Japanese prime ministers have had all the staying power of seasonal lint, and the result is a political mess. No one can make a tough decision.

It’s getting worse. The country’s economy is seemingly in permafrost and the morale of the ordinarily proud island nation is barely holding its own. Worse yet, the relentless rise of China as a voracious economic whale reinforces the sense of Japan’s epochal decline. No political figure seems capable of pumping life into the Japanese spirit and pulling it all back together.

The recent dustup over who owns an isolated offshore island (that may or may not sit atop mineral riches) only serves to illustrate. The Japanese insist on calling the island Senkaku, and the Chinese insist on using Diaoyu, with obvious ownership implications. (In fact, the island is not that far from Taiwan, which is perhaps the most plausible titleholder in this dispute). The Japanese arrest of an allegedly straying Chinese fishing boat captain turned into an overnight international incident. Neither side would budge. Then the Japanese prime minister blinked, and the captain was let go. The emotional toll on the Japanese people was devastating. And dangerous: For if Asian history teaches us anything about Japan, it is that backing the Japanese into a corner is a mistake.

While China owns the larger arsenal, Japan’s is by far the more modern. If I were Beijing, I wouldn’t mess around with the Japanese military. Instead of pushing Japan into a corner by demanding the release of the captain on their terms, the Chinese should have graciously played it cool and allowed the Japanese to emerge with some face-saving formula for the captain’s release.

These days, Beijing is not playing things so coolly. Instead, it’s bullying alarmed neighbors (from Vietnam to Malaysia to the Philippines), thus playing into the hands of the American Pentagon. The latter would be only too happy to head an anti-China alliance in the Pacific.

By being pushy with its assertions of sovereignty over Pacific islands, Chinese diplomacy has managed to do what the Pentagon could not: create the picture of China as a menace. This is the unwanted achievement of the government in Beijing, and it’s an amazing blunder that rolls back the impressive diplomatic progress of the prior Chinese regime.

Say what you want about former President Jiang Zemin’s lack of polish, or former Premier Zhu Rongji’s harshness on the Taiwan issue — they managed to lull much of Asia into relaxing about China. They tabbed China’s easygoing policy “peaceful rising.” This catchphase was intended to convey China as preoccupied with the massive task of caring for the economic development of its people.

Precisely because some 1.3 billion mouths-to-feed live in China (more than four times that of the United States), that evident aim had credibility. People believed China to be too busy keeping its own economic house to have much left over to entertain military ambitions. But with the full-speed buildup of its navy now surfacing for all to see, China has shattered the carefully constructed sense of calm.

Bring back Jiang Zemin and Zhu Rongji! That’s not going to happen, of course — any more than the Japanese political system is going to start reproducing political superstars to steer it through difficult times. The danger, therefore, is that these two giant ships of state, bobbing restlessly around in the East China Sea, while captained by idiots, are heading for inevitable collision.

Columnist Tom Plate, Loyola Marymount University’s Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies, is the author of “Conversations With Lee Kuan Yew.” In February, “Conversations With Dr. Mahathir Mohamad” will be published in the “Giants of Asia Series.” © 2010 Pacific Perspectives Media Center

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