Commentary / Japan

A match too good to be true?

Could there be the first signs of one hopeful development among the general geopolitical tension and gloom?

I refer to the sliver of news — the hint, no more — for once positive instead of the usual stream of negatives — that the second- and third-largest industrial nations on Earth, China and Japan, may actually be getting together, at least in some areas, instead of being forever at each others’ throats.

The Times, reporting on the three-day official visit by Prime Minister to Beijing and to Chinese President Xi Xinping, carries the phrases “a warm encounter” and “a growing closeness.”

Westerners, and Japan’s well-wishers generally, have to rub their eyes. For decades some of us have been longing, without much hope of realization, for the giants of Asia to get together instead of quarreling, but always it has seemed things were going the other way, with bitter tensions, horrible memories constantly kept alight, nasty disputes over island territories, and a general political stand-off. The Chinese leaders seemed bent on keeping anti-Japanese feeling as intense as possible, while Tokyo has looked on uneasily as China flexes its military muscle and talks of great power status.

Western wishes for peace to break out between the two Asian economic giants have not been entirely altruistic. The plain fact is that with the West in increasing turmoil the best chance of sustained world prosperity is coming to lie increasingly in a rising and hopefully peaceful Asia. Instead, and until up to now, we have seen Asia looking anything but peaceful, with disputes and rivalries on every side, grimly reminiscent of the pattern of 19th- and 20th-century Europe tearing itself to bits.

So this gleam of good news coming through an otherwise dark scene seems at first almost too good to be true. Admittedly, political differences always get exaggerated in the media and very often diverge from what is actually happening on the ground. In the real world, extensive Japanese investment has long been spreading across China and for the most part Japanese plants operate successfully across China and are left in peace, despite the occasional “organized” riot and window-smashing in front of Japanese businesses. In the real world, China is Japan’s biggest export market. And in the real world, Chinese tourists crowd into Tokyo in their millions, opening relations at a grassroots level in sharp contrast to official hostility. But could there now be even bigger new factors at work?

One suggestion is that Tokyo and Beijing now look for common ground in handling the eternally unpredictable U.S. President Donald Trump. If so they are addressing a dilemma now shared by almost the whole international community. There is scarcely a nation or region that has not experienced the hot and cold treatment from the White House, one moment with handshakes and embraces and the next with kicks in the teeth.

If the United States really believes what leading figures such as Vice President Mike Pence proclaim, that China is America’s enemy and a long-term threat, then it may be that a wiser Japan, closer to the problem, does not see things in this stark way and is rightly seeking a less unproductive relationship, despite all the history.

Strangely, a whole region hitherto at dangerous loggerheads, including the two Koreas, may now be finding overlapping interests as Washington batters them all with higher trade barriers and hostility to all previous multilateral trade arrangements under which both Japan and China have prospered mightily, and which is in their common interest to preserve.

Or there may be another new dimension — the sheer level of economic and technological entanglement that the digital age is bringing about.

Of course, the idea that interlinked economies and commerce between nations would overcome political hostility and outright war has long been around. In Europe before 1914 the globalization of those days led to confident predictions that war could not happen. It did. The same views circulated in the late 1930s and again proved wrong. All economic links between belligerents (and they were extensive) were severed overnight.

But in an age of hyper-connectivity, with the incredibly interwoven complexity of modern supply chains, as well as with grass-roots opinion among the younger generation empowered by technology as never before in human experience, it could be that official stances and official antagonisms are just no longer so easy to sustain and fan into flames as government leaders once believed.

Much wider international pressures are also pushing the old enemies toward new common ground, notably in the case of their respective and growing infrastructure and development programs now reaching right across Asia, and other continents as well, on an unprecedented scale.

For these future-shaping activities all to be conducted in separate and rival silos makes managerial and practical nonsense.

None of this can melt away old bitterness and suspicion or unscramble history. But thanks to accelerating technological advances, the world has plainly entered a new epoch in which all the old assumptions, good and bad, are bound to be up for reassessment.

There is also the old adage which has faced policymakers and diplomats down the ages: “Better the devil you know. …”

David Howell is a Conservative politician, journalist and economic consultant. He is chairman of the House of Lords International Relations.