In the 19th century, Japan, unlike China, responded to Western pressure to open up to trade not by fighting back but by transforming itself so that, while still geographically in Asia, it became in effect a European country.

Japan decided to hop on the imperialist bandwagon and to become imperialist in every sense of the word.

It acquired the imperialist taste to subjugate other peoples so as to acquire colonies. In this, it outdid its Western mentors, quickly turning Korea, which had recognized China as its suzerain, into a colony and then turned its eyes on the main prize — China itself — and all of Southeast Asia.

From the late 19th century on, it forced wars on a weak and dispirited China, wars that Japan with its modern navy and armed forces trained in Western military techniques easily won.

During World War II, Japan allied itself with two leading Western countries, Germany and Italy. But it turned out that it had chosen the wrong countries to ally itself with.

After its defeat, Japan was put under American occupation and tutelage. And then, lo and behold, the two countries, victor and vanquished, formed a close alliance. Big brother America helped Japan develop democratic institutions and rise from the ashes of war until Washington saw itself challenged, peacefully this time, by Japan for the leadership of the capitalist world.

Still, even though Japan was geographically in Asia, mentally it saw itself as part of the Western camp of nations, joining together in the fight against communism.

The Liberal Democratic Party was very much America’s partner in this endeavor. Especially in the early years after the war, Japan saw the United States as a Technicolor country, while the rest of the world was drab gray.

The U.S. could meet all of Japan’s needs. Japan had no need for Asia.

But this half-century-long dream came to an abrupt end with the rise of China. Or, one should perhaps say, with the return of China to its rightful place in Asia.

For China is very much the heart of Asia. Asia cannot do without China even though other Asian countries did join the American embargo against the communist government after the Korean war erupted. But as soon as China opened up, Asians came knocking.

However, the rise of China, coupled with what is widely seen as an inevitable decline of the West, has caused the Japanese in recent years to reflect on just who they are and what their role should be in the global order.

Little by little, Japan saw China’s influence expand. For decades, the U.S. was simultaneously Japan’s military ally and its biggest trading partner. The two seemed to go together quite naturally. But then the unthinkable happened when, in 2007, China overtook the U.S. and became Japan’s biggest trading partner.

Once this happened, the U.S.-Japan alliance was in trouble because it meant that Japanese interests were divided. Can Japan have close economic relations with China — relations that are vital to Japan’s very survival — and at the same time remain a military ally of the U.S., whom many in China perceive as their deadly enemy?

Like it or not, Japan is being torn by different loyalties and interests.

That was when the Democratic Party of Japan entered the scene in 2009, promising to rebalance Japanese policy with an emphasis on Asia, which of course means China. Certainly, its proposal for an East Asian Community caused anxiety in Washington, fearful that it would be shut out of the world’s most dynamic region.

However, in the last two years, China had shot itself in the foot through its policies toward the Korean Peninsula and Japan. This has resulted in Japan’s new ruling party putting as much emphasis on the alliance with the U.S. as the Liberal Democrats ever did.

However, economic forces are such that Japan, and particularly the business community there, is eager to have closer relations with China.

And yet, it seems, China will not take yes for an answer. No sooner had Yoshihiko Noda been chosen as the new prime minister than China issued a demand that he “needs to respect China’s core interests.”

If China will only allow the situation to develop on its own, the countries of Asia may well come to accept its status as the leading power in the region. But arrogance and threats are unlikely to win China any friends — certainly not in Japan.

Frank Ching is a veteran journalist based in Hong Kong. Frank.ching@gmail.com

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