The rocky relations between China and Japan in recent years are symptomatic of a long and complicated historical rivalry that is adjusting to rather uncomfortable historical contingencies. From time to time the rivalry boils up to the cultural and inter-personal levels, expressing itself like street fights between young kids. The mutual dislike between the two peoples and the top leaders of both countries often clouds the rationality of big power politics.
Japan has enjoyed peace and prosperity under America’s protective wings since the end of World War II, but that comes with a cost — Japan being “an abnormal” nation in the sense that its security dependence on the US has deprived it of its role as a major political power befitting the size of its economy. Given its economic strength and technological prowess — nurtured by its alliance with the US, Japan is entirely capable of defending itself. This makes Japan resentful of the dependence. Thus, love and hate characterize US-Japan relations.
For a long time, Japan has harbored the ambition of playing a leading role in regional and global affairs — to regain, so to speak, the prominent role it used to have in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But that ambition has been frustrated by its dependence on the US, a dependence it finds increasingly uncomfortable and forced, and one that has long lived out its usefulness. China’s rapidly expanding regional and global influence has sent Japan into a panic that its big power dream will be surpassed by China, and that Japan may forever live under the shadow of its giant neighbor, even if it could eventually get out of the shadow of the United States.
Now that China has replaced Japan as the world’s second largest economy and is on course to become the largest, the window of opportunity is rapidly closing for Japan to become a political power to be reckoned with. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is seizing this closing window to reassert Japan’s status before it is too late. And that is the root cause of the current tension between Japan and China.
History is the key in this monumental struggle between the two rivals. Japan has borrowed the bulk of its culture from China, and in all the previous wars fought between the two before the Sino-Japanese war of 1894, Japan had ended on the losing side. Before encountering Westerners in the 18th century, the Japanese regarded China as a teacher and model to be eagerly emulated. Ancient history gives China an edge. China also attempts to hold a psychological edge over Japan by bringing up at every opportunity the aggressions and war-time atrocities committed by Japan, and by painting the Japanese as unrepentant militarists.
To overcome that edge, Japan has pursued a revisionist line to recast history in a different light under which Japan appears less sinister and more of a victim. Indeed, deep down many Japanese, especially its ruling elite, consider Japan to be a victim of World War II; they harbor a grudge against the “American genocide” — the Tokyo fire-bombing and the atomic explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Yasukuni Shrine visits; the attempts to paper over its wartime atrocities and the denial of the “comfort women” record; the revision of history textbooks; the drive to revise the pacifist constitution written by the Allied Supreme Command under General McArthur during post-War occupation, etc. all reflect a drive to become a “normal nation” unburdened by historical guilt.
Culturally the US-Japan alliance is an unnatural one. The cultural affinity with China in contrast may pave the way to a much more solid and enduring relationship — here lies the danger for America who realizes that it must put Japan on a tight leash.
Unlike that between Germany and the United States, culturally the US-Japan alliance is an unnatural one. The cultural affinity with China in contrast may pave the way to a much more solid and enduring relationship — here lies the danger for America who realizes that it must put Japan on a tight leash. For the Japanese, the occupier-turned-ally is to be utilized but not trusted, especially when the United States needs the cooperation of China in dealing with so many world affairs. Japan is panicky at the notion of G2 or ChinAmerica.
Japan’s seemingly deliberate escalation of the Dianyu/Senkaku conflict towards a showdown that involves the United States; its active involvement in the South China Sea; its provocative talk about a “league of democracies” around China, etc. are all designed to create the conditions to gain a greater space of maneuvers from America — to expand the role of its military, to revise the pacifist constitution, and eventually to gain full sovereignty. A constitution written by foreigners has to be a shame on the national psyche.
On the other side, with relative decline of national power that is spread increasingly thin with policing the world, the United States needs a stronger Japan as a counterbalance to a rising China. But as always it needs Japan as a junior partner kept under a tight leash. There is a fine line with which the United States must maintain a delicate balance between these two objectives, and the determined effort by Abe to “normalize” Japan threatens to tip that balance.
Abe’s historical revisionism antagonizes Korea and many other Asian countries. It is sabotaging US efforts to build a tripartite alliance of the United States, Japan and Korea to present a united front to North Korea, while also trying to avoid antagonizing the Chinese. But the ultimate objective is to contain a more confident China and an east-looking Russia.
As a giant that for millennia was the preponderant if not the sole power on the western Pacific, China has a psychological propensity to regain that historical status. That entails the psychological and symbolic, if not physical, re-subjugation of Japan. Short of that, China will not be able to wash away the shame inflicted upon it by Japan in their two previous wars and the atrocities committed on Chinese soil by Japanese soldiers.
America plays a crucial role in this rivalry but has little appreciation of the Eastern psychodynamics that are going on in the region. Japan and China can only begin learning to get along when they move away from mutual demonization to developing mutual respect, but here the United States has played an uncomfortably distorting role.
Consider this: Japan does not respect China partly because it considers itself defeated in World War II by America, not by China. That thought allows Japan to continue to hold on to the sense of superiority gained from the last two Sino-Japanese wars. Conversely, if by treaty obligation the United States helps Japan to defeat China in a future war, it would not induce Chinese respect for Japan either, because China will consider it a defeat by America, not by Japan. Such a defeat will only reset the contest and start the rivalry anew. Meanwhile, Japan will retain its sense of superiority from the US-Japanese security alliance.
In a real sense, the United States is keeping both Asian nations from maturation.