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

Interestingly enough, it is difficult to find many Japanese who will say that they believe any of these assumptions to be valid. And if they are made skittish by the history of the last century and a half - especially by their own failure to come to grips with their great neighbor, which is in fact the origin of the rest of their problems - we should not be surprised. But beyond this, we also overlook (because we seem already to have forgotten) that an effort directed against China even remotely analogous to the one we led against the Soviet Union would be long, difficult, expensive, and taxing. We learned during the Cold War that even our closest and most compatible friends and allies would show the wobbling effects of psychological and political pressures directed against them by the common enemy. Yet such pressures are negligible compared to what the Chinese would be able to bring to bear against the Japanese, were it to emerge that Tokyo was even thinking about becoming our key and necessary partner in some anti-Beijing arrangement.

But is there sufficient reason to believe that things will even get to that point? Past history, contemporary politics, and economic projections all suggest that the revival of a strategically meaningful Sino-Japanese competition is a chimera. Like some of the intra-European hostilities that have dissolved into history, this great intra-Asian one will go the same way in due course. It will have its ups and downs, to be sure, yet it now seems that Japan's efflorescence as the driving force in the relationship must be judged a brief one. When it offered itself to the rest of Asia - and to China especially - as the embodiment of a certain imperial idea, it turned out that its doctrine was too weak, its culture too unfathomable, and its resources too limited to generate the requisite staying power. When, later, it offered itself, even to China, as an example of the operations of capitalism in an Asian setting, the Japanese version of capitalism, with its emphasis on gigantism and conglomeration, began to look less impressive as other variations - more chaotic and less aesthetically pleasing, perhaps - began to thrive. And not surprisingly - given its origin in defeat and shame - the Japanese seem not to believe strongly enough in their Western-style system for it to provide a philosophical basis for renewing a sustained strategic rivalry with China.

The division of Europe ended suddenly with the collapse of the Iron Curtain, thereby reviving older ideas about Europe (a place) and "Europe" (an idea), and also creating new visions both for intra-continental relations and for the continent's relations with the rest of the world. A comparable reconstitution of Asia and "Asia" is also underway, as that continent's Bamboo Curtain dissolves, more slowly than its European counterpart, but no less surely. The United States, which had much to do with defending those lines and then breaching them, should not now expect that the very divisions it worked so hard to end can still be easily called upon in support of some new self-interested grand design in East Asia. And, moreover, if we expect that Japan, whose interests and principles were never wholly ours, will nevertheless help us define and maintain a new and congenial intra-Asian division of interest and principle, we shall be disappointed.

Charles Horner is senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.

Essay Types: Essay