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

It is understandable that both Chinese and Japanese would seek some
explanation of how it was that their essentially benign interactions
across the centuries, and their initial common sense of danger in the
face of Western expansion, resulted in such mutual destruction.
Intra-European wars had become routine over the centuries, and
explanations for them abounded. But the Pax Sinica had also become
routine, and there was nothing in the traditional Sino-Confucian view
of international affairs that could explain the Sino-Japanese
struggle. There were no real precedents. China had not threatened
Japan since 1281, when Khublai Khan, as emperor of China, launched a
failed invasion of Kyushu. Japan had not rebelled against traditional
Chinese hegemony in the region since Toyotomi Hideyoshi, as Japan's
dominant warlord, launched two failed invasions of Korea in 1592 and

The Chinese felt themselves well prepared for a re-evaluation. In
their new state-supported ideology, "Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong
Thought", Japan's behavior could be explained by "imperialism."
Nothing personal here: The Japanese had merely done what History made
them do, given the unequal levels of socio-economic development of
the two countries. In attempting to usurp the position of the
European imperial powers in China, Japan was doing only what a
properly educated person (that is, a Marxist) would expect of it.
Similarly, capitalist America's resistance to Japanese expansion was
seen to be equally low-minded, and the previous decades of American
support for China needed to be understood in this light.

For the Japanese, the matter could not be this simple, for they too
had to rally around a new state-supported ideology, the one imposed
by the American occupation. Through their new adherence to
representative democracy, individual rights, and the rule of law, the
Japanese were now supposed to understand how they had become similar
to, say, the Americans, but remained different from, say, the
Chinese. The new postwar regime in Japan, insofar as it was
parliamentary and democratic, was thought by many to represent a
return to the "natural" course of the 1920s. Then, as Japanese
remembered, their country was part of the post-World War I trend that
saw the apparent advance of Western-style parliamentarism in places
as far apart as Central Europe and China. In Japan, of course, the
trend was interrupted by the collapse of civilian government in the
wake of the Great Depression, when a kind of militaristic,
xenophobic, and expansionist radicalism came to the fore.

For a decade and a half, modern-minded and internationally-oriented
intellectual and cultural elements had thus been silenced and
suppressed, and the Japanese welcomed the re-establishment of an
internal parliamentary order, even if American-imposed. But, as for
many of their cousins in the West, the anti-communist, anti-Soviet
stance of their new government was another matter. Many of them, too,
felt the need for a new interpretation of the relationship between
Japan and China, one that, while radically different from the
pan-Asianist outlook of the discredited Japanese militarists, somehow
made sense of the cataclysmic changes that had so rapidly come to
both countries in the preceding decades.

What had gone wrong? How was it that the Japanese had so thoroughly
misunderstood their closest and most significant neighbor? The
Japanese were, and remain, the world's most industrious, meticulous,
and methodical Sinologists, and there is more information to be had
about China in Japan than in any other country. The Japanese penchant
for bibliography, collation, filing, indexing, sorting, and
referencing had been put to use by the various parts of the Japanese
imperial enterprise in China. Now it fed interminable, dense, indeed
impenetrable debates among Japanese Sinologists about the nature of
Chinese society and the course of Chinese history. But, as one might
have anticipated, these discussions, which began by trying to
understand how Japan's centuries of study of China had yielded a
portrait of a country ripe for easy conquest, soon flowed into larger
ruminations about Japan itself.

The discussions harked back to a much older debate, begun in the
late nineteenth century, and still highly relevant today. As far back
as l885, when Japan's modernization was gathering steam, the
country's most Western-oriented and cosmopolitan intellectual,
Fukuzawa Yukichi, published a famous appeal to his countrymen to
"leave Asia." He maintained that Asia belonged to the past, and that
Japan's future lay in the closest collaboration with, and emulation
of, the advanced countries of the West. The rest of Asia, he thought,
would more or less have to fend for itself and do the best it could
in the great struggle for survival. The contrary case was also made
the same year by another commentator, Tarui Takichi, who put a
different gloss on Japan's growing material advantage over the rest
of Asia. Tarui thought Japan was obliged--fated, in fact--to
encourage its neighbors to concert their efforts against the West,
and ultimately to lead and then dominate a pan-Asian campaign to
dislodge Western influence altogether.

Europe's Means, Asia's Ends

Critics of Japanese behavior, both in China and Japan, would later
come to note the entanglement of both points of view, in that Japan
ultimately employed techniques perfected by the Western imperialists
to pursue ambitions supposedly rooted in a higher Asian sensibility.
Originally, however, the hope of the "liberals" was that China would
be inspired and edified by Japan's successes as a constitutional
monarchy that blended the best of the traditional and the modern,
thus sparing itself untoward upheaval and dislocation. The two
nations were not presumed to be rivals as such, and thus this outlook
might be deemed "pro-Chinese" in the better sense. More militant
"pan-Asiatic" elements might also have claimed to be pro-Chinese and
to have China's larger interests at heart, but they were also more
cynical and vainglorious and, in the end, too imitative of the worst
behavior of the Westerners they claimed to despise. In the event,
having promoted "Asia consciousness" and "China awareness", Japan
came to be undone by these very monsters of its own making. As one
Japanese historian ruefully summed it up, "in the end what was
produced was Asian disappointment, Western animosity, and Japanese
self-destruction." Chinese commentators return repeatedly to the same
hortatory tale: To the degree that Japan thinks of itself as
"Western", it will pursue policies that will unite its neighbors
against it. To the degree that it remains "Asian"--knowing its place,
which is to say, deferring to China--it can enjoy material
prosperity, help improve the material lot of others, and enjoy the
high regard of all.

The interplay between these themes has had much to do with the theory
and practice of Sino-Japanese relations since the end of the second
Sino-Japanese war. Even within the context of the Cold War, the two
nations continued to deal with matters that had been the substance of
their prior relationship. After all, China's return of Japan to its
former, and very "Asian", pre-Meiji dimensions was not quite
complete. Whatever else may be said of Chinese intervention in the
Korean War in l950, for example, one explanation had to do with the
reassertion of China's traditional hegemony on the peninsula, which
had been usurped by Japan. Similarly, Taiwan's de facto independence
from China and the re-establishment of Japan's commercial presence in
Southeast Asia were reminders that China's war aims had not all been

The dispute about sovereignty over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, which
flared up this past September, reminds us that, as much as Japan and
China are at peace, the Chinese still see possibilities for a
contemporary "cold war" based on earlier hostilities. The islands are
eight bits of uninhabited rock, about 125 miles northeast of Taiwan,
and about 200 miles southwest of Okinawa, the largest island in the
Ryukyu chain (and itself intermittently a Chinese "vassal state"
until annexed by Japan in 1879). It is the relationship between these
two larger islands that, of course, actually matters. In late
imperial times, China held the eight islets within Taiwan's
jurisdiction, so that when the Japanese acquired Taiwan in 1895, they
also acquired the islets. The Japanese then came to include the
islets within Okinawa's jurisdiction, so they passed back to Japan
when Okinawa itself was passed back to Japanese administration by the
United States in 1972. The Chinese never seemed to make much of this
bit of historical sleight of hand, and even in the early 1970s, when
it was already apparent that ownership of this otherwise
inconsequential real estate could have implications for the control
of both marine and sub-seabed resources, the Chinese were willing to
set the matter aside.

Yet the issue was there, waiting to be picked up by the Chinese
whenever it suited them. Why now? Perhaps because the Chinese wished
merely to remind Japan that, despite the prospect of "enhanced
security cooperation"--a widely bruited by-product of President
Clinton's visit to Tokyo in April 1996--the new Japanese-American
declaration on security issued when Clinton was there was worth less
than it seemed. (Indeed, the United States has since declared that it
has no position on the sovereignty over the islets; the invocation of
the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty in response to a Chinese attack is
therefore moot.) Or, perhaps, Beijing decided that residual dislike
of Japanese by all Chinese provided a way of enlisting Chinese
patriotism in easing its recovery of Hong Kong and, later, Taiwan.
(The Republic of China on Taiwan also asserts sovereignty over the
islets; as a claimant of the legacy of Chinese nationalism, it can
hardly afford to be outshouted by Beijing on this question. And, for
good measure, Sino-Japanese controversy has helped further solidify
China's relations with increasingly influential Chinese people around
the world.)

Essay Types: Essay