The Third Side of the Triangle: The China-Japan Dimension

The Third Side of the Triangle: The China-Japan Dimension

Mini Teaser: Of all the relationships in the world that do not directly involve the United States as one of the parties, the one between China and Japan is likely to have the greatest effect upon us in the first half of the twenty-first century.

by Author(s): Charles Horner

Of all the relationships in the world that do not directly involve
the United States as one of the parties, the one between China and
Japan is likely to have the greatest effect upon us in the first half
of the twenty-first century. Indeed, it has already much influenced
the depth and the range of our Pacific involvements. Important
strategic decisions yet to be made will be based on assumptions about
relations between these two, but those relations are not very well
understood. If our grasp of intra-European relations has been
seriously hampered by a propensity toward provincialism, imagine what
awaits as we try to plumb the relationship between two countries that
are culturally much more distant and foreign. Forced to rely on
"Pekingology" or the competing models of "Japan, Inc.", we have
trouble enough fathoming just one of these ancient and complex
countries in isolation; divining what connects them and what they
mean to one another takes us to a level of much greater difficulty.

Many will argue in favor of analyzing the China-Japan relationship
as we would any other, employing the customary constructs of
international relations and strategic analysis, and discovering
perhaps that there is nothing very mysterious here after all. It is
always a sensible injunction to Westerners in general to hold their
fascination with "oriental stratagem" in check. We are also
well-advised to remember that China and Japan are aware of the West's
cult-like fascination with the Orient's ancient wisdom and may use it
as a way of keeping us permanently uninformed--or misinformed--about
their business. We should assume that there are those in Tokyo and
Beijing who are occasionally bemused by our invocation of the pithy
aphorisms of their ancient sages to explain what our interlocutors in
China and Japan are "really" up to.

On the other hand, there are aspects of Sino-Japanese relations that
should make the invocation of standard Western international
relations theory equally suspect. There is nothing, for example, in
our Western understanding of even so rudimentary a term as "bilateral
relations"--nothing provided by the "models" we know best from the
study of European history, like Britain-France or
France-Germany--that adequately prepares us for the mixture of
respect, disdain, emulation, and rivalry that has characterized the
relationship between China and Japan for many centuries.

In the first place, it is hard for us really to grasp China's
historic influence on Japan. We know something about it, of course:
Chinese characters that form Japan's written language; Confucianism
and Buddhism that shape Japan's political thought and religious
sensibility; a grand cosmology that connects the natural and human
worlds and places an emperor where the two intersect (though it is
only in Japan that an emperor still reigns); the theory and practice
of aesthetic and poetic that make representation in the arts mutually
recognizable and intelligible. But these, for most of us, are only
data. We are accustomed to think that only Western ideas have had,
and will have, profoundly transforming societal effects. Yet in the
centuries preceding the advent of Western intellectual influences in
East Asia, it was Chinese thought that had unchallenged transforming
power. The subsequent inroads of the West have been far from
superficial, and we need not contest Japan's fundamental article of
faith that both sets of influences work on something that is uniquely
Japan's own. But for all that, nothing short of a thousand years of
exposure could make Japan as Westernized as it has already been

Thus, when Western power began to establish itself in East Asia in
the mid-nineteenth century, there was no obvious reason to anticipate
that China and Japan would pursue seemingly different strategies in
the face of a common danger. Our conventional rendering of each
country's response to the West--that Japan "modernized" with a
vengeance, whereas China dallied and resisted--emphasizes that
difference, and one can trace much of the ensuing Sino-Japanese clash
to these divergent responses. But well before Sino-Japanese rivalry
came to dominate politics in East Asia the two had sensed a common
predicament, and neither saw itself as sufficiently powerful to deal
on its own with the Western onslaught.

The Japanese, for complex reasons of their own, decided to place the
imperial institution at the center of their effort at national
revitalization: the Meiji reform. The Chinese, led by Dr. Sun
Yat-sen, opted to junk their imperial system, replacing it with a
"republic" that was Western in appearance. These contrasting
responses reflected a verdict on the utility of certain inherited
traditions, the Japanese leadership deciding to make some use of
"Confucianism", broadly understood, the Chinese elite concluding that
it had outlived its usefulness. At first, there was a mutual respect
for the passionate intensity each country brought to its own course
of action. In particular, Japan's early successes were inspiring to
Chinese revolutionaries, and Japan provided practical models for the
mainland in nearly every realm. But in the next generation, the
Japanese invoked Asian and racial solidarity in an ultimately futile
effort to unite Asia and to marshal Asian resources against the
enemies Japan had chosen for itself.

The Sino-Japanese dimension to this undertaking has receded from our
view, but it was the seminal occasion for the engagement of the
United States in Asia's affairs in the twentieth century. There is,
first of all, "the fifty-year struggle" that began in l895 with what
the Chinese like to call the first Sino-Japanese war; among other
things, it resulted in China's ceding Taiwan to Japan and in the
displacement of China's influence in Korea with the Japanese
annexation of the peninsula in 1905. There followed the
"thirteen-year war" (l931-45) that began with Japan's detachment of
Manchuria from China proper and the establishment of Manchukuo, and
ended with Japan's capitulation. It was the second phase of that war,
beginning in l937, that finally drew the United States into the
struggle. For it was China that was the principal issue between the
Americans and the Japanese. At the end of the day, the United States
could not acquiesce in China's incorporation into a Japanese empire.

Of the various theaters of World War II, the second Sino-Japanese war
can be likened only to Europe's eastern front in its intensity and
destructiveness. It was, of course, a rather one-sided ferocity.
Beyond the brutal hands-on war crimes of every description, Japan's
war in China caused enormous collateral damage, compounding the
already deep misery resulting from a century of internal decay. But
at the same time, the protracted war on the China mainland worked to
America's advantage; two million Japanese soldiers were tied down by
it, so that America's acquisition of Japan's Pacific holdings was
comparatively easily gained.

On the other hand, it is now generally understood that the war
fatally debilitated the Nationalist regime of Chiang Kai-shek.
Ironically, it was his promising initiatives in the early l930s that
had prodded the Japanese to attack when they did, before China could
become too strong. As for the ultimate inheritor of Japan's mainland
holdings in China, the People's Republic, its leaders have never been
shy in acknowledging that the Japanese gave them their chance to
seize power. China's President Jiang Zemin, speaking at a rally
commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of Japan's surrender, reminded
younger comrades that before Japan's invasion the Chinese Communist
Party was hemmed in, and that it was China's war against Japan that
allowed the Communist Party to spread its influence throughout the
country and, ultimately, to build the enormous military and political
organization that made its victory possible when China's civil war

Residues and Explanations

Japan's defeat and the extension of the Cold War into Asia abruptly
severed the enforced Sino-Japanese intimacy that invasion had
created, but there were important residues. The scale of Japanese
involvement in China had been enormous. Beyond its field armies,
Japan had deployed a vast array of administrative functionaries,
businessmen, students, and other intermediaries. It ran the
government of Manchukuo, and as an occupying power had a wide range
of relations with a collaborationist government based in Nanking that
had effective jurisdiction over at least one hundred million people.
In Manchuria, especially, the Japanese left behind a substantial
industrial and transportation infrastructure. There, and in some
other areas, Japanese was widely used as a language of instruction,
and there was a sustained and expensive effort at what would now be
called cultural imperialism. The Japanese were also a major player in
organized crime, and for a time ran what was then probably the
biggest narcotics trafficking operation in the world. Now, even more
than French life under Vichy, Chinese life under Japanese occupation
has been relegated to history's Never-Never Land, something
substantial in its impact but little remarked on. (But awkward
reminders do surface occasionally. Taiwan's fifty years under
Japanese rule ended with the island's retrocession to China in l945.
Lee Teng-hui, 73, Taiwan-born and recently elected president of
Nationalist China, is reputed to speak better Japanese than he does
Mandarin. Indeed, his occasional interviews in flawless Japanese with
Japan's media have had the effect of rekindling some sentimental
affection for Taiwan amongst the Japanese.)

Essay Types: Essay