When making up is hard to do
18 Feb 2014|

From London to Davos to New York, the new year has seen China and Japan stepping up their war of rhetoric. Writing an op-ed in Britain’s Daily Telegraph, Liu Xiaoming, the Chinese ambassador to Britain, likened Japan’s militarism to Voldemort, the arch villain in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. In a subsequent commentary, Mr Liu’s counterpart Keiichi Hayashi gave as good as he got, saying that China, not Japan, risked playing Voldemort, by ‘letting loose an arms race and an escalation of tensions.’

In Davos, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said that Japan’s relationship with China was ‘similar’ to that between Germany and Britain at the cusp of WWI. The comments drew a quick riposte by a Chinese academic, who argued that Mr Abe was the ‘troublemaker’ and compared him somewhat obliquely to North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. The verbal sparring continued at the United Nations, with China arguing that Mr Abe had ‘closed the door to dialogue with China’ with his December visit to the Yasukuni Shrine.

The mud-slinging, however, isn’t merely rhetoric. It reflects the negative turn that the relationship has suffered in recent months—a further deterioration of which would have significant implications for Asian security and the global economy. The writing is already on the wall. Since taking power in December 2012, Mr Abe has not held a summit with top Chinese leaders (or with South Korea leaders, for that matter). In the 12 months ended March 2013, the number of Chinese incursions into Japan’s territorial airspace jumped to 306 (PDF)—nearly double that of the preceding 12 months. And it’s an open secret that Japan’s recently-released National Defence Program Guidelines, with its focus on beefing up defences in the country’s southwestern islands (which include the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands), has China written all over it. In such a volatile mix, only a small spark—say, a reprise of the alleged radar lock-on by a Chinese warship on a Japanese destroyer in January last year—could light the fire of conflict.

Arguably, there are perfectly reasonable prescriptions to resolve such a dicey situation. One Chinese view is straightforward: if both countries can’t agree on what they should do, they should at least agree on what not to do. For instance, they could implement a regime of several ‘nos’: no military assets near the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, no exploitation of resources or the permitting of landings by activists. Another approach would be for Japan to do the obvious—admit that there’s actually a dispute over the islands and agree with China to shelve it for the time being (as per a 1970s-era agreement). A more ambitious approach would be a crisis management regime. This could involve a restarting of talks to establish communication mechanisms involving law enforcement agencies, militaries and foreign ministries (a second round of talks were scuttled after Tokyo’s nationalisation of the Senkakus in September 2012).

However, the problem with such solutions is that they can’t be implemented without a change in the underlying tensions in the relationship. Both Chinese and Japanese officials need to acknowledge that there are legitimate fears and concerns on the opposite side. One Chinese academic remarked recently that Chinese concerns about Japan were more than just about issues of history, but a visceral sense of insecurity caused by Japan’s wartime aggression.

Japanese observers argue that fear—one leg of Thucydides’ triptych of fear, honour and interest—leads to arms races and possibly war. As such, Chinese leaders should acknowledge that Japan, the economy of which has suffered much decline in the past two decades, frets not only about China’s military build-up but possible abandonment by its American ally.

This isn’t just touchy-feely mumbo-jumbo. As a tangible way of demonstrating Japan’s acknowledgement of Chinese fears, Japanese leaders should stop visits to the controversial Yasukini shrine and come clean about its wartime history. Speaking at the Shangri-La Dialogue in June last year, Japanese Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera provided a good model. Before speaking about Japan’s contributions to regional and global security, he invoked the spirit of the 1995 statement by then-premier Tomiichi Murayama by telling delegates that Japan had ‘caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries.’ Talk might be cheap, but given that perceptions matter in politics, a repeated series of apologies would help defuse tensions.

In a reciprocal gesture, the Chinese can acknowledge Japanese fears by dusting off a ‘new thinking’ concept proposed by a Chinese journalist and academic a decade ago (PDF). ‘New thinking’ called on China to ‘overcome parochial views’ of Japan and adopt a forward-looking and strategic approach to their relationship. In essence, it seeks to remove sentiment and emotion from the relationship, and instil some discipline in working out tangible ways to put the relationship on a strategic footing.

An even more ambitious—and probably unattainable—goal for now would be forgiveness. This isn’t just a bleeding heart endeavour. Many of today’s conflicts are manifestations of historical injustices. The Serbs were portrayed as the villains of the Balkans in the 1990s, but the Serbs—together with gypsies and Jews—were killed at the hands of Croats and Germans in the 1940s. As Mahatma Gandhi once said, the principle of ‘eye for an eye’ leaves the world blind.

The steps listed are ambitious, to say the least. Proponents of ‘new thinking’ were criticised by their compatriots (PDF). To even bring it up in polite conversation in China would only draw ire from a younger generation of Chinese brought up on a steady diet of anti-Japanese propaganda. The same applies to Japan, which continually sticks to guns by saying that it has already made enough apologies for its wartime activities.

However, even a modest movement towards the acknowledgement of mutual fears would yield dividends. In the lead-up to their normalisation in the 1970s, China and Japan put aside controversial issues of history—a wise move which led to the substantive maturing of bilateral relations. In 1972, Mao Zedong famously told Japanese premier Kakuei Tanaka that there was no need to apologise. After all, the Chinese leader said, the Communist revolution in China would never have succeeded without Japan’s invasion. The same imperative applies now: face history and be done with it. The only difference is that the stakes are far higher.

William Choong is a Shangri-La Dialogue senior fellow for Asia-Pacific Security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies-Asia, Singapore. Image courtesy of Flickr user Rambling Vegans.