America's Big Opportunity to Lower Tensions in Asia

The United States must help to broker a sustainable peace between the two leading powers of East Asia: China and Japan. 

The confluence of the 70th anniversary of the end of the Pacific War with the upcoming Xi-Obama Summit provide the opportunity for musings on the state of the all-important China-Japan-U.S. triangular relationship and its pivotal role in the future of global security. A pattern in this triangle has been visible for some time. Tokyo hems and haws about objectionable Chinese deployments or statements. Washington then sends high-level envoys and dutifully begins planning ever larger joint exercises to yet again reinforce the strength of the Japan-U.S. Alliance. Beijing views these measures as an anti-Chinese conspiracy and proceeds with military programs and new initiatives to cast the Alliance in doubt--setting this vitriolic spiral off all over again. Occasionally, this tedious, and yet perilous geopolitical brew receives an injection of spicy kimchi from the ever volatile Korean Peninsula, but the general triangular dynamic has been in place for well over a decade.

A curious thought experiment may involve trying to imagine an Asia-Pacific region in which Tokyo and Beijing are not constantly at loggerheads and actually worked in tandem with Washington’s backing to resolve the region’s many festering problems, from nuclear proliferation to environmental degradation to energy security.  At present, American diplomats seem quite at ease with the “business as usual” pattern described above.  Undoubtedly, this pattern plays to a superpower’s desire to feel “indispensable.”  Indeed, it is a bit unnerving to think that many American leaders may have quietly concluded that China-Japan antagonism actually serves the U.S. national interest. Let us hope otherwise. Instead of stoking this hostility, therefore, American diplomacy must take proactive steps to heal the deep rift between East Asia’s premier powers. This could actually require a sustained diplomatic effort--in terms of time, creativity, and raw determination--on par with the Iran nuclear deal, but the consequences for global security could be even more consequential. With this in mind, this edition of Dragon Eye will explore some recent Chinese writings on the subject of Sino-Japanese relations in the hope of setting the proper context for a productive Xi-Obama summit that prioritizes the objective of achieving progress within this most vexing strategic triangle.

As Rana Mitter’s 2013 historical account of China’s experience in WWII relates, at least 14-15 million Chinese perished in the huge conflagration that killed “only” half a million Americans.  But even as the war is seared into the memory of Americans, not least because of extraordinary feats of heroism, it is simply obvious that the Second World War had an enormous formative impact upon the states that suffered truly catastrophic levels of casualties--above all in the USSR, but also including China as Mitter’s history has helped to more fully reveal.

In a series of articles in an early 2015 edition of the prestigious Peking University journal 国际政治研究 [Journal of International Studies] the history issue indeed forms a primary theme.

The article by China Academy of Sciences researcher Tang Chongnan lays out how Japanese militarism (and its impact on China) did not begin in the 1930s, but rather in the last quarter of the 19th century.  According to this treatment, Japanese students sent abroad in the 1870s “完全接受了西方列强弱肉强食’” [completely accepted the Western Great Powers’ practice of the strong eating the weak]. Tang describes a rapidly modernizing Japan that goes “从战争走向战争” [from war to war], resorting to the use of military force about every five years during the decades leading up to the Pacific War.  Among the atrocities discussed in this piece are horrors that go beyond Ritter’s 14-15 million soldiers and civilians that perished, but also catalogue 20 million Chinese dragooned into hard labor, “several million instances of rape” and 200,000 Chinese women forced to become sex slaves of the Japanese armed forces or “comfort women.” In the end, Tang concedes that Japan’s modernization process did have certain successes alongside of catastrophic blunders. In an interesting passage that may have echoes for China’s current strategic dilemmas, Tang explores how a philosophy of pursuing “富国强兵” [wealth and strength] (with the former prioritized) over time became corrupted in the Japanese context into “强兵富国” [strength and wealth] (with the former prioritized), because the approach of “以战争促发展” [promoting development through war] could only end in disaster.  Concluding on a hopeful note, Tang suggests that contemporary Japan has illustrated that only “reform can bring genuine development.”