China's violent verbal assault on Japan does not spin out of the past but rather out of the future. Complaints about war crimes and history books are so many fig leaves. The driving force in this dangerous dispute is power politics in Asia.
The anger the two nations display as they demand apologies that neither will make is a clear expression of the rebalancing of power throughout Asia that is occurring as China ascends, Japan responds and India shrewdly reaps benefits from the clash of the two other Asian titans.
Tomorrow is suddenly now. Sustained mutterings from policy pundits that the Bush presidency has neglected the great strategic challenge of the future -- power relationships in Asia -- are made flesh by the accelerating triangular competition for global influence and resources. Ignore no more should be the watchword on Asia for George W. Bush's second term.
It is no longer enough for a lightly engaged Washington to support Japan reflexively, coax China warily to be more responsible and pay lip service to a "strategic partnership" with India. The administration must now decide whether U.S. interests will be best protected by trying to maintain the present rough equilibrium of forces in the Asia-Pacific region, or by intervening to alter the balance of power.
That choice is made urgent by North Korea's renewed nuclear blackmail and its destabilizing effect on Japan and South Korea. Those two U.S. allies will now inevitably reconsider their commitments not to pursue nuclear weapons. The clarity, firmness and demonstrated capability of Washington's assurances to them about security will be decisive elements in their reappraisals.
It is a mistake to write off the political turmoil in Asia as a case of resurgent nationalism in a region that has not put to rest the ghosts of World War II, as Europe has. That is more or less the way the Chinese have framed their case in scripting mob protests as a brutal rejection of Japan's bid for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. That seat must be denied because Tokyo has not sufficiently atoned for past atrocities, the Beijing mobs claim.
But this is a struggle for real and present advantage in global politics, in which nationalism is a tool. The contest is pursued frontally at times, obliquely at other moments, but constantly by both protagonists.
That suits China as a rising economic and military power with aspirations to replace or nullify the United States as the regional hegemon in the Pacific. Beijing is acquisitively adding financial clout to its status as the world's manufacturing hub, a declared nuclear power and a veto-wielding Security Council member.
China's ambitions cannot leave Japan indifferent. Junichiro Koizumi, an exceptionally strong and farseeing Japanese prime minister, has responded by moving closer to Washington on security matters -- he dispatched Japanese peacekeepers to help in Iraq, for example -- and by seeking more global responsibility for Japan at the United Nations and elsewhere. He bids to make his once inward-looking Tokyo a player in world politics as well as economics.
Beijing stirs controversy about war crimes and history not only to put Japan on the defensive but also to mask China's determination to remain the only Asian permanent member of the Security Council. The high-minded launching of a U.N. reform package sparked the gutter politics of the counterproductive mob attacks on Japan's diplomatic buildings and businesses this month.
India is the sleeper in this regional power equation. The recently elected Congress Party government has worked its version of a strategic triangle with almost Kissingerian skill, simultaneously improving relations with China, Japan and the United States and thus squeezing Pakistan into a more conciliatory posture. Stay tuned for more developments on this front.
The more immediate question involves the strategic consequences of China's decision to block Tokyo's bid for a Security Council upgrade by calling into question Japan's postwar renunciation of militarism and aggression. This is easily the worst tactic that China could have chosen.
Japan's commitment to its "peace constitution" and the vow in that document never to seek nuclear weapons have won for the island nation a moral authority and credibility that its consensus-minded people will be reluctant to cede. But the combination of North Korea's threats and China's attacks on its reputation can only stimulate the survival instinct in the Japanese.
Beijing advances toward creating its own worst nightmare. The Bush foreign policy team, short on experience at the top on Asia, must move quickly to reassure Japan, caution China and enlist India as it tries to keep Asia's political turbulence from spinning out of control.