On the rare occasions when Washington policymakers glance at the East Asian radar screen these days, they don't see much beyond two potential flash points -- North Korea and the Taiwan Strait. But by focusing exclusively on these clear and present dangers, they are missing a growing blip that has the potential to be just as great a threat to the region's stability -- the re-emerging nationalist clash between East Asia's two biggest powers, China and Japan.
Even as their economies interlock ever more tightly, Japan and China find themselves on a collision course over issues ranging from territorial disputes to competition for natural resources to an arms race of sorts. The trend is doubly disturbing because it comes after years of failed effort to set aside the bitter memory of Japan's 20th-century conquests of China and other Asian neighbors in favor of building a common and prosperous regional future. It might not be too much of an exaggeration to say that how these two Asian giants sort out their differences, and what role the United States plays in the process, could, as the Chinese Communist Party newspaper the People's Daily put it, "determine the future of East Asia and even of the world as a whole."
Unquiet on the Eastern front: Chinese soccer fans burn the Japanese flag after the Asian Cup soccer final in Beijing earlier this month.
Earlier this month, a display of raw hostility by Chinese soccer fans toward the Japanese team at the Asian Cup finals in Beijing suggested that hopes for reconciliation may have been overly optimistic. The ugly scene of Chinese spectators shouting "Kill! Kill! Kill!" at the winning Japanese team and later pelting its bus with soda bottles was the latest of several recent anti-Japanese displays. In August 2003, the accidental unearthing of some poison gas canisters abandoned by Japanese Imperial forces during World War II killed a Chinese worker and injured dozens in Heilongjiang province. Though Tokyo apologized, its meager first offer of compensation triggered angry denunciations from the victims and their families, as well as top Chinese officials.
Then in September came a media blitz over a "mass orgy" by 300 Japanese workers whose company had hired female "companions" to entertain them on a corporate holiday in southern China. The crowds of instant "couples" waiting for elevators in the hotel lobby angered Chinese guests, and news stories fueled outrage across the country, with thousands of angry anti-Japanese messages filling Internet bulletin boards.
A month later, more anti-Japanese demonstrations erupted in the streets of Xi'an after a university festival at which three Japanese exchange students performed a mildly obscene skit that was seen as making fun of the Chinese. With mobs of young Chinese chanting "Go home, Japanese pigs!" and vandalizing Japanese restaurants over subsequent days, local authorities had to round up Japanese students and cart them out of town for their own safety.
Though China and Japan reestablished diplomatic ties in 1972, not long after President Nixon's landmark visit to Beijing that opened China to the West, relations have never been harmonious. They spiraled downward in the mid-1990s after Japan's education ministry approved middle-school history texts that China and other Asian countries saw as whitewashing atrocities committed by Japanese troops against their populations in the 1930s and '40s. Former Chinese president Jiang Zemin, who has personal memories of WWII Japanese atrocities, not only made sure that Chinese children learned about them, but also never failed to tell Japanese visitors that they had better not forget "history." On a 1998 trip to Japan, he repeated that admonition at every opportunity, to the great dismay of his hosts.
Jiang's successor, Hu Jintao, who became China's first post-WWII-generation leader two years ago, clearly wanted better relations with Tokyo. In December 2002, as he and Premier Wen Jiabao explored new avenues of diplomacy, Ma Licheng, a writer at the People's Daily, published a now-famous article expressing admiration for Japan's peaceful ascent to prosperity and arguing that the government's propensity for inciting anti-Japanese sentiment produced nothing positive for China.
But that and other trial-balloon overtures from Beijing were shot down by the actions of Japan's maverick prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi. Despite objections from Beijing, Koizumi, who took office in April 2001, has made annual pilgrimages to Yasukuni, the Shinto shrine that honors Japan's war dead, including 14 top WWII military leaders convicted and executed as "Class-A" war criminals. After his second visit to Yasukuni last year, Beijing disinvited him from a commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the peace and friendship treaty, and he has been persona non grata ever since.
With such frigid relations at the top, it is no surprise that the Japanese and Chinese people feel it's okay to denigrate each other -- or that there is serious fallout on affairs of state. The two governments are engaged in an increasingly bitter dispute over a cluster of small islands midway between Okinawa and Taiwan, called the Senkakus by Japan and the Diaoyus by China. Though controlled by Japan for more than a century, they are still claimed by China. In March, a small group of Chinese activists dodged Japanese coast guard boats to land on the largest island. Japan avoided a confrontation by deporting them -- but only after demonstrators burned a Japanese flag at the embassy in Beijing.
Then in June, China began drilling for natural gas a couple of miles west of Japan's "exclusive economic zone" demarcation line, near the islands. Alarmed that the Chinese wells might draw off gas from its side, Tokyo not only protested, but launched a counter-exploration just east of the line. According to Japanese reports, the East China Sea is now dotted with Chinese navy and Japanese coast guard patrol boats that sometimes face off with each other.
The two countries are also battling over access to a vast oil reserve in Siberia. China wants Russia to build a $3 billion pipeline to its own oil center at Daqing, while Japan is offering to fund a $7 billion pipeline to a port on the Sea of Japan. Russia's President Vladimir Putin keeps putting off a decision -- giving both Tokyo and Beijing heartburn.
Although both nations side with the United States in the war against terrorism, this also has become a source of tension between them. Koizumi's decision to send a flotilla of tankers and destroyers to support the allied fleet deployed in range of Afghanistan, and his dispatch of 1,000 troops to provide non-combat support in Iraq, won praise from the Bush administration -- but rang alarm bells in Beijing. The Chinese government and media regularly denounce Japan's new activism as evidence of a revival of its prewar militarism. Beijing is not totally off the mark. The terrorist threat and U.S. pleas for help have legitimized what an increasingly nationalist political establishment wanted to do anyway: remake Japan into a "normal country," with a full-fledged military and a will to use it.
Koizumi wants to revise the postwar constitution, under which Japan "renounce[d] war as a sovereign right of the nation." The United States, whose postwar occupation wrote the constitution, is now a chief advocate of the changes, and the leaders of both the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and the main opposition Democratic Party have vowed to put the start of constitutional revision on this year's Diet agenda. Such ideas were taboo just a decade ago, but in the wake of 9/11, Japan's once-formidable pacifist forces have been unable to mount any serious opposition to them.
The Diet also recently passed contingency laws removing many constraints on military activity and authorizing the government to curtail civil liberties in times of emergency. This is couched in terms of combating terrorism and dealing with North Korea, but it has produced anxiety abroad. The China Daily said the new laws "underline the shift in Japanese military strategy from defensive to offensive," a worrisome trend "given Japan's lack of soul-searching over its history of aggression."
Of course, the Chinese aren't exactly innocent when it comes to militarism. Beijing has raised its defense budget 10 percent or more annually for more than a decade -- and is believed to spend much more off-budget -- to finance its armed forces of 3 million. Beyond nuclear missiles and an air force of growing power, China now also plans to build a blue-water navy -- one capable of operating outside coastal waters -- and to create an arsenal of high-tech conventional weapons.
The bickering between China and Japan is already producing consequences for East Asia. A decade ago, the region talked enthusiastically of forming a European Union-style economic and security bloc. But with Tokyo and Beijing at odds, few now see any realistic prospect of that.
Cynics may say the rivalry assures that a U.S. presence in the region will remain a welcome stabilizing force -- and that it is therefore to Washington's advantage to keep the two nations quarreling. But the United States can ill afford a confrontation between the two major East Asian powers at a time when American forces are stretched so thin. The good news is that the United States is uniquely qualified -- for reasons of history as well as its status as the only remaining superpower -- to mediate reconciliation. The bad news is that with Iraq dominating its every waking hour, the Bush administration is paying precious little attention. Without an active American effort to put relations back on track, though, Chinese and Japanese leaders may find it hard to deal with the rising nationalism in their respective countries, and the dark cloud it casts over their common future.
Ayako Doi is former editor of the Japan Digest. She writes frequently about Japan and Asia.