Commentary / Japan

Repairing Japan-China ties

by Tom Plate

For all its problems, Japan requires no one’s sympathy. It remains a proud and successful nation, a unique and rewarding culture and an economy not by any remote stretch of exaggeration or bizarre imagination an Asian Greece (suddenly the most turbulent modern economy).

On the contrary, its per capita income still dwarfs that of China’s, and for a population of 127 million — only a touch more than Mexico’s and well short of Russia’s — the fact is that its economy usually gets ranked as No. 3 worldwide, even above powerhouse Germany. But Japan, the second-largest financial contributor to the United Nations and a major global player in many other respects, does not always get respect. In part that’s because, these days, the land of the rising sun is dwarfed by the shadow of China.

And now the Japanese people, among the most pacifist and anti-nuclear on Earth, have become unsettled, somewhat on edge and perhaps feeling (wrongly or rightly) a little double-crossed. According to many opinion polls, they have begun to distrust China’s intentions and doubt the validity and wisdom of their nation’s pragmatic attitude and policy toward their gigantic neighbor on the other side of the Korean Peninsula.

China is now Japan’s No. 1 foreign issue. The impact has changed the domestic political landscape dramatically: “To be successful, Japanese leaders must persuade their public that cooperation with China will reduce Japan’s vulnerabilities rather than exacerbate them,” reports Japan expert Sheila A. Smith, senior fellow at the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, in her surpassingly comprehensive book “Intimate Rivals.” “The old ways of managing its relationship with China are no longer effective.”

Japan has begun viewing China more as an existential challenge than as a jolly-good regional customer of its many polished and brilliant exports. The causes of this sea change are many, but of course the various claims and counter claims — and shoves and bumps — in the East China Sea have scarcely bolstered bilateral comity.

Another annoyance in Japan is this: China’s well-known advocacy of a worldwide policy of non-interference in a country’s internal affairs (especially China’s) tends to be honored mainly in the non-observance when it comes to Japan’s own internal affairs, about which Beijing often makes public commentary, not often complimentary.

Japan is certainly vulnerable to criticism, as is any country. It did many very bad things in the war that it lost. China and others often complain about its “bulimic” official memory, especially regarding the atrocities. Leaving aside the validity of the constant harangue, there is the question of its efficacy. As Smith’s book points out, the result of all the nagging is to harden Japanese domestic sentiment against China.

Then there are Japan’s indignant right-wing pressure groups and annoying lobbies that do wish China serious ill. But thanks to Beijing’s rhetorical battering, they have gotten strong new wind in their political sails. Now the Japanese are seriously debating whether to upend the Constitution so as to expand their military space and, inferentially, jump into an East Asian arms race, presumably with that good old fighting spirit.

There is immense irony here and it is truly heartbreaking. Author Smith points out with poignant perspective that support from the Japanese public for grandstanding visits of its politicians to war shrines and the like actually has been undergoing decline due to generational turnover. And, she reports, the nation’s nationalistic right wing is actually less unified than fragmented: It turns out that all Japanese conservatives are not cut from the same grumpy cloth.

But harrowing sea confrontations between fishing vessels and military ships serve to narrow differences; loud rhetoric from Beijing plays into the wrong political hands. Instead of winning over public opinion, Chinese policy would appear to be making the Japanese chafe about their military readiness. How smart is this? Wasn’t it Sun Tzu, like about a million years ago, who wrote: “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting”?

Beijing’s policy toward Japan needs to be rethought. Smith’s definitive book nails the point that Japanese foreign policy in general (and toward China in particular) is almost entirely driven by domestic politics, pressures and lobbies. There is no overall conceptual framework; the national emotion is becoming increasingly existential.

Thus the problem for Chinese as well as Japanese diplomacy is daunting. Are the domestic politics of each nation antithetical to continued peace? Pugnacious groups on both sides are gaining leverage; and mutually respectful diplomacy loses out to petty pugnacity, especially over stupid island territorial issues. As Smith concludes: “The potential for heightened tension — and perhaps even conflict — will make it increasingly difficult to go back to Deng Xiaoping’s (legendary) approach to leaving the problem to future generations to resolve.”

For starters, China’s Japan policy is in a box that Beijing has got to begin figuring some way out of.

Tom Plate is a U.S. journalist, professor and internationally syndicated columnist.