[OUTLOOK]A storm that may well passThe latest brouhaha between Japan and its neighbors provides a timely reminder that the stability of the Northeast Asian equilibrium remains fragile. For the moment, both China and Japan are seeking to put the lid on recent squabbles. They have ample incentives for doing so.
The more difficult question is whether these recent displays of more intense nationalism constitute the recurrence of a familiar but manageable policy challenge, or represent a harbinger of a nascent Sino-Japanese strategic rivalry that is destined to reconfigure the regional balance of power.
Recent events have imposed significant costs on both Tokyo and Beijing. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi was impelled to offer yet another apology to Asian neighbors, along with the suggestion for a joint Japanese-Chinese committee to look into the textbook issue. Mr. Koizumi must recognize that another visit to Yasukuni Shrine will stimulate even greater domestic and international concerns. Meanwhile, Japan’s quest for a permanent seat in the Security Council has been further complicated.
China, arguably, may pay an even higher price. Its indulgence of protracted xenophobic demonstrations against a neighbor has tended to reinforce the convictions of many foreigners who already are inclined to regard Beijing as an emerging threat. It puts an additional lever in the hands of U.S. officials seeking to perpetuate Europe’s ban on arms sales to China.
Officially sanctioned protests designed to target “right-wing conservatives” in Japan wound up alienating virtually all segments of Japanese society, not least the business community whose investments, business and “know-how” the Chinese covet. And Beijing’s actions may have stirred doubts among other multinationals about the wisdom of investing heavily in a country susceptible to such nationalist excesses.
Happily, both governments have recognized the need to put a lid on the current episode and to strive for a nationalization of bilateral relations. Their leaders have met. Officials in both governments are considering initiatives to repair frayed relations. China’s state-run press has even run stories dissociating the government from protests and implying that they may have been organized by an anti-government conspiracy. One must hope Tokyo and Beijing will succeed in restoring normalcy to their ties in the period ahead, and the prospects for that seem fair.
Recent events, however, may herald a more serious long-term challenge. Since the end of the cold war, the structure of the Asian balance has begun to change in profound ways. These changes could readily spur a more intense Sino-Japanese rivalry.
The rise of China has fueled dramatic growth and powerful forces of integration in the regional economy. But it has also enabled China to finance double-digit increases in its defense budget each year for more than a decade. Naturally, many Japanese wonder how the Chinese will use the military power and economic and political clout it is rapidly accumulating,
North Korea’s relentless quest for nuclear weapons, accompanied by its development of longer-range missiles, is perceived as a genuine security challenge by Japan, and this reinforces its natural inclinations to chart a new security role more akin to that of other “normal” nations.
While Japan’s new security responsibilities have been carefully circumscribed to avoid “combat missions” or development of “offensive” capabilities, its neighbors, taking the long view, wonder where this may eventually lead. If China is sensitive to Japan’s collaboration with the U.S. on ballistic missile defenses, Japan is observing China’s incipient moves to begin building a “blue water” navy with apprehension.
The evolution of regional economic cooperation arrangements along pan-Asian lines ― e.g. ASEAN + Three ― is spurring Sino-Japanese competition for leadership in such ventures, even as China’s voracious appetite for energy is intensifying competition for access to new supplies.
Meanwhile, a new generation of political leaders is emerging in Northeast Asia, which appears more eager to tap into rising nationalistic sentiments to shore up domestic support for their regimes.
These forces are producing a volatile mix. Without earnest and sustained efforts by Beijing, Tokyo, and others with a stake in stable Sino-Japanese ties, a drift toward more intense strategic rivalry between these regional giants is readily foreseeable.
Fortunately, that outcome is by no means inevitable. Japanese and Chinese leaders recognize the value of their burgeoning trade and investment flows. Both recognize that an arms race between them would divert resources desperately needed for other purposes. Both recognize that progress in promoting regional economic cooperation will remain a pipedream without a significant reconciliation of Sino-Japanese differences. Both share the hope that Pyongyang can be persuaded or pressured to give up its nuclear aspirations, and they know that this will require a coordinated diplomatic effort.
Other Asian nations, anxious not to be caught in the undertow of Sino-Japanese rivalry, can be counted on to urge restraint on both parties. And I trust the United States will do likewise, for it has always proved easier to preserve cordial and effective relations with Tokyo and Beijing when these two capitals are making serious attempts to get along with each other.
In the short term, we can hope for progress in arresting the downward slide in Sino-Japanese relations. As for the long run, I hope Chinese and Japanese leaders will adopt the old admonition: “Pray as if it is up to the Lord; work as if it were up to you.”
* The writer, a former U.S. ambassador to Japan, is a professor at Stanford University.
by Michael H. Armacost