China and Japan have been feuding of late, with an estimated 10,000 protesters surrounding the Japanese embassy in Beijing over the weekend of April 9-10, shouting, “Be ashamed of distorting history.”
The ostensible reason for Chinese anger is Japanese textbooks, not yet officially adopted, that downplay Japanese war crimes during the World War II era.
The real issues are much deeper and should be potentially worrisome to the United States.
Chinese crowds are talking about textbooks, but that may be a surrogate for concerns over the future of Taiwan in the medium term, and anxiety over which country will be the dominant economic power in the region over the longer run.
Chalmers Johnson, University of California professor emeritus and one of the country’s leading experts on Asian politics, said the United States actually exacerbated Chinese-Japanese relations in February by signing a new military pact with Japan. That agreement included, for the first time, a statement that security in the Taiwan Strait is a “common strategic objective” for Japan as well as the United States. To China, that meant that “Japan had decisively ended six decades of official pacifism by claiming a right to intervene in the Taiwan Strait,” according to Johnson.
Taiwan, remember, is still viewed as a breakaway province by mainland China, and until recently that was also Taiwanese policy. But the Taiwanese have thought increasingly about formal independence.
Left to themselves, the Taiwanese and mainland Chinese might eventually work things out (mutual trade has made their economies increasingly interdependent). Japan and the United States reasserting themselves as interested parties complicates matters.
Further complicating matters is China’s re-emergence as an economic power. Largely by being open to market capitalism (even as the Communist Party maintains rigid political control), China has experienced economic growth of 9 percent a year for two decades.
From 1992 to 2003, Japan was China’s largest trading partner, somewhat arresting Japan’s economic decline. But in 2003, Japan fell to third place, behind the European Union and the United States. Japan had been the region’s economic powerhouse until recently, and it is having trouble coming to terms with the economic emergence of mainland China. That could explain, as Cato Institute foreign policy expert Ted Carpenter said, its desire to re-emphasize its ties with the United States and improve its military capabilities.
Extensive trade ties should militate against outright conflict, but nationalism, which is being intensified and exploited by both governments, can be a powerful force that can get out of control.
The United States, much of whose government deficit is financed by Asian governments and investors, would do well to handle Asia with some delicacy, seeking ways to come to terms with all parties and defuse potential conflicts. Instead, it seems to be exacerbating potential conflicts.