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

Strategic Design, Political Theater

Seen across a longer term, the Senkaku/Diaoyu episode should remind
us that one high priority of "rising China's" strategic policy is the
restoration of the historic balance in Chinese-Japanese
relations--scarcely an easy task. Japan is wealthy, successful,
technologically sophisticated, a potential military power of some
consequence, and a political influence in the world in its own right.
How then to assure that Japan does not acquire strategic influence
commensurate with its economic strength?

In l972, when Sino-Japanese diplomatic relations were formally
re-established, the Chinese said there were two issues that would
retain pride of place: "historical awareness", that is, Japan's past
conduct in China; and "Taiwan", meaning China's recovery of the
remaining piece of territory that had been lost to Japan. The two are
certainly related, but it is noteworthy that the first question, that
of history, has remained surprisingly effective in keeping the
Japanese psychologically intimidated and politically subordinate. It
is as if the Chinese understood better than the Japanese themselves
that, properly handled, the memory of Japan's wartime conduct could
be made to shape the relationship for decades to come, that Japanese
politics would somehow contrive to make the issue so difficult to
confront as to place substantial inhibitions on Japan's freedom of

The problem of "historical awareness" has lost none of its power to
roil Japanese politics, and there is no end to its influence in
sight. It is not that the Japanese do not know how to appear
contrite. They are renowned for assuming responsibility. Corporate
executives and government ministers resign routinely when egregious
conduct is revealed. Just this past March, Japanese newspapers
printed a photograph of some pharmaceutical executives kneeling on
the floor, prostrating themselves in apology to dead victims of
aids-tainted blood their companies had purveyed. This particular
instance of overwrought sentimentality and stylized grieving happened
to fit nicely into that wonderfully Japanese obsession with the gory
details of disease. Nevertheless, the rituals are so
well-established, so customary, that it is the absence of exaggerated
displays of remorse that compels attention.

It was widely noted in Japan that Emperor Akihito's 1992 visit to
China to mark the twentieth anniversary of Chinese-Japanese
normalization was especially significant for him because his late
father had long wanted to visit China but had never done so. Still,
Hirohito, in l984, had managed to speak of "extreme regret concerning
the unfortunate past." In l990, Akihito's phrase was "a feeling of
great sorrow." When he got to China in l992, he said he felt "deep
sorrow. . . . I deeply reflect that we should never again go to war."
It had taken twenty years to get to that particular point, for the
Japanese had indeed committed themselves to "deep self-reflection" in
the joint declaration of l972. Now, Akihito could say that he had
reflected on the matter and was able to report on the results of his
own introspection. Of course, these are all carefully wrought terms
of art, hard to render into other languages, and perhaps chosen for
precisely that reason. But for all the attention to rhetorical
detail, high-ranking Japanese officials will, every now and then,
engage in what we might call "Rape of Nanking denial", or reflect
publicly on the deeper purity of Japan's motives in the Greater East
Asian War. They will then be compelled to resign and recant.

It is easy to make too much of this kind of political theater, even
though it has been running for fifty years now. But what it does
reveal is that there is little basis for the reassertion in Japan of
a "great power" consciousness, especially the kind that is supposed
to make it a genuine rival of China for strategic hegemony in Asia.
There is surely no principle of "Asia consciousness" that could serve
as a basis for such a dramatic turn in Japan's behavior, and the idea
that Japan might come to invoke a "Western" principle for this
purpose is even more farfetched. The notion that Western standards of
both international and domestic practice will somehow be asserted by
Asian states against a growth in Chinese power, and that Japan will
be the leader of such a coalition of principle and interest--or will
even cynically exploit such concerns to its own advantage--is, for
one thing, too hard to reconcile with Japan's conspicuous lack of
interest in performing such a role.

What Shape the Triangle?

Japan is supposedly the great test case for the applicability of
Western values and practices in Asia, but so far the Japanese are not
satisfying the highexpectations that some Westerners have in this
regard. Even rhetorically, the Japanese are not involved in the great
contemporary debate about Asian and Western values, and despite the
fact that they are regularly congratulated for the growing
"normalization" (that is, Westernization) of their politics, they
show no inclination to become so involved.

In this one respect, there has been no Japanese prime minister more
cosmopolitan than Hosokawa Morihiro, distinguished by his descent
from one of the country's great modern-minded nobles and by his
distance from the corrupt practices and factions of the ruling party.
In advance of what turned out to be his eight-month tenure during
l993-94, he was supposed to represent the best in liberal,
internationally-minded Japanese politics. Yet even he was not
prepared to make his nation's case when a conspicuous opportunity
arose. In the spring of l994, at a high point of international
attention to China's human rights practices and their effect on
Sino-American relations, Hosokawa was in Beijing, meeting with the
same Chinese officials who had recently finished giving Secretary of
State Warren Christopher a very hard time. Hosokawa talked about
human rights as universal principles, but also expressed the
view--surely an ironic one, coming from a Japanese--that democracy
could not be imposed by one country on another. True, it is only fair
to concede that few really believe that the Japanese model that is up
for emulation in Asia is the political one--the freely elected
parliamentary democracy. More compelling, supposedly, is the economic
one. But that, too, looks more dubious as the Japanese economy, at
least by its previous high standards, seems less overpowering, and as
capitalism, which in the Orient was once confined to Japan alone,
establishes vigorous roots in other Asian countries.

In practical terms, both the security and commercial aspects of
Japan's international relations are changing. Russo-Soviet power once
dominated the high politics of national security, and trade with
North America still dominates day-to-day politics, economics, and
commerce. But, inexorably, Japanese attention is shifting to China in
both cases. The security aspect has become prominent, especially
since the widely publicized bellicosity of the Chinese in the Taiwan
Straits early in l996. But tectonic shifts in the world economy are
also being measured, and they indicate that Japanese trade and
investment are being drawn away from the West and channeled toward
Asia, especially China. Sino-Japanese trade is expected to grow
markedly over the next twenty years or so, fundamentally transforming
a host of previously well-established relationships. Talk of
Sino-Japanese "economic convergence" abounds because the two nations
are now on a course to create the largest economic agglomeration in
the world. Moreover, there are others--Taiwan and South Korea most
notably--whose trade and investment are also being increasingly drawn
into it. Taken together, all this will bring to fruition the grand
vision of Sino-Japanese cooperation articulated in Japan decades
ago--except that it is China that will dominate the second coming of
the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.

If any of this is even remotely accurate, then the dilemmas that the
United States currently faces in its conflicted relations with China
will appear as nothing when compared to what Japan will experience.
This is but one rendering of "greater China"; somewhat different
versions already inspire dread in many of the world's chanceries.
Given the history we have recounted, any variation of it in China
will have a profound influence on how the Japanese evaluate their
"China policy." For the past twenty years have turned out to be the
easiest and most straightforward in that history. Japan and China
were both members of a worldwide coalition directed against the
Soviet Union. Both were free to indulge in the visceral animosity
they had developed for the Russians, an animosity rooted not only in
old-fashioned national rivalries but also--and let us not be afraid
to say it--in race. Indeed, race was long assumed to be a basic fault
line in the relations between West and East in general, though today
we seem to hear little about it. The Chinese, for their part,
obviously submerged their consideration of it into their anti-Russian
accommodation with the Americans. Neither did the Chinese urge
Japanese to object to the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, once all three
countries were lined up on the same side. And yet. . . .

In the meantime, we would be well-advised to reflect on how the more
mundane facts now before us ought to guide our future hopes. In
particular, we should hope and seek to ensure that Japan will play an
increasingly larger role in a U.S.-designed effort to balance China's
growing power. There are some implicit assumptions here: that the
U.S.-Japan Security Treaty's anti-Soviet purpose can somehow be
converted into a new anti-Chinese one; that Japan has untapped
resources for regional and even global leadership that may be
activated; that despite the indications of public anxiety and the
instances of institutional incapacity, there is a stable political
consensus inside Japan, a consensus tough enough to allow a hardening
of Sino-Japanese relations; that the Chinese cannot, in the end,
fundamentally alter the nature and content of the Japanese-American
connection, even if they were determined to do so and worked hard at
it; that the relationship between the Chinese and the Japanese is
more amenable to manipulation by us, to our advantage, than it is by
either or both of them to be used against us.

Essay Types: Essay