Asia’s historic rivalry

01.06.05 Publication:

As a writer who has long been fascinated by Japan and (like everyone else) has recently become fascinated by China, I am inevitably also fascinated by the relationship between these two countries.

            During 2004, I visited both China and Japan in order to interview many people in the two countries about this relationship. My aim was to prepare an article for The Economist about the way in which the relationship is so economically hot and politically cold. I also wanted, however, to work out whether my next book ought really to be about China and Japan.

            I interviewed government officials, historians, journalists, businessmen and many others. As a result I felt sure that this was going to be an important subject and that relations between the two countries really were very tense. But they were also quiet. So eventually, having had no news events to coincide with my article, we at The Economist decided we should just go ahead and publish it. This we did in March.

            Barely a few weeks later, the news came, in big bursts. The mass protests in big Chinese cities over several successive weekends, followed by unproductive meetings between Chinese and Japanese foreign ministers concerning mutual demands for apologies, suddenly made this topic very hot indeed.

            That is often what happens in newspapers and weekly news magazines, such as The Economist. A journalist can detect an important theme and write a story about it. But he cannot predict exactly what events will come along to make this theme topical and highly relevant in the minds of readers.

            This theme, of the tense Japan-China relationship, is definitely one that will be important for the long term. It does not consist just of a few protests in Chinese cities, or even of the dispute, real as it is, between China and Japan over oil and gas resources in the ocean between the two countries. It is more deep-seated than that.

            It is based, as many people have said, on history. But most people who make that point mean that it is based on the history of the past century and on Japan´s invasion of China during the 1930s. While I think that part of recent history does play a crucial part in the relationship, the role of history is much wider than that.

            Japan and China are absolutely natural rivals in East Asia, and have been for at least a thousand years. The more important point is that they are natural rivals for the future too. The news we have been witnessing recently is a reflection of that future rivalry: a growing China and a newly confident and somewhat economically stronger Japan both realise that the other country could, in future, dominate the politics of the region. Neither wants to allow the other to do so.

            That, in my view, is why Japan is so anxious to prevent China from getting its way over the oil and gas beneath the ocean. The resource itself is a minor matter, though of course high oil prices have recently made it more valuable. But a principle is at stake: the principle is that China cannot simply bully its neighbours, just because it has a billion people and is a fast-growing economy.

            On the other hand, China is also anxious about Japan´s military alliance with the United States and what that alliance might do to protect Taiwan from Chinese military attack. That is of course a very emotional issue in Chinese politics, but there is also a principle involved for the long term: it is that China does not want to be threatened or overshadowed in its own seas by its neighbours. Japan on its own could not do that. Japan with the United States could, however.

            I was glad that the street protests in China were eventually stopped, by the government itself, and that there are now more serious attempts to resume a proper diplomatic relationship. There will, I imagine, now be official discussions about the undersea gas field and about how best to handle the history of the 1930s. Perhaps even, with both sides having shown their pride and strength, there may be a chance for the first full official visit of Japan´s prime minister to China since 2001, or the first visit by China´s president to Japan since 1998.

            But whatever happens in this way, the tensions will still be there, under the surface. For the rivalry is inevitable. So is conflict also inevitable? No, I don´t think so. But I do think that there is no prospect in the next few decades of China and Japan becoming as friendly as have Europe´s historic rivals, France and Germany, or Britain and Germany.

            The reason is twofold. First, that China´s development is so new that neither its people nor its politicians yet have a mature, well established feeling for China´s proper place either in the world or in the Asian region. Second, that the two countries´ political systems are utterly incompatible: Chinese dictatorship and Japanese democracy. This makes it unlikely that either the peoples or the politicians can truly come to trust each other.

            What can Japan do in the meantime?  I think Japan should certainly stand firm in one sense, but give way in another.

            The sense in which it should stand firm is over Japan´s right to play a leading part in global affairs and to defend its national sovereignty. Japan should maintain its campaign to gain a permanent seat on the Security Council of the United Nations, for Japan´s economic and political weight in the world merits exactly that. Even if China or any other country opposes Japan´s entry into the Security Council, Japan should stick to its demand.

            Where Japan should give way is over the history of the 1930s and 1940s. This is where Japan´s reputation is most vulnerable. It is true, as the government argues, that in a democratic society such as Japan many different opinions will be held and people should be free to express them, even if they are historians or politicians who wish to justify Japan´s invasions of other countries in that period. But opinion is one thing, and facts are quite another. The government should insist on textbooks and other teaching materials adhering to a consensus view of the facts, such as on the atrocity in Nanjing or other controversial matters.

            That consensus could be arrived at through an officially organised national conference. Once it has been agreed, the government should enforce it for all public schools and universities. History can never be changed. But it could be removed as a vulnerability in Japan´s own diplomatic and political status. For the historic rivalry is going to remain a feature of the coming decades.