[OUTLOOK]Come to terms with shared history

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[OUTLOOK]Come to terms with shared history

During a visit to Japan last week I found the mood less upbeat than I expected. After all, the Japanese economy is back on a growth track, the Prime Minister has a solid Diet majority to support his reform agenda and the US-Japan alliance ― which has become more balanced and more global ― was bolstered recently by the resolution of long-stalled base issues. Thus there seemed to be plenty of good news.
Yet the outlook ― particularly on foreign policy matters ― was sober, even a little gloomy. To some degree this reflected bitterness over Japan’s failed bid for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Surely Japan has earned the right to such a seat with its economic prowess, strategic restraint, and generous donations to the world organization (which exceed the combined financial contributions of the U.K., France, Russia, and China). But prospects are now poor, and the Japanese are galled not only by the public opposition of their immediate neighbors, but by their inability to recruit Asian sponsors other than Bhutan, the Maldives and Afghanistan.
Worse yet, Japan appears diplomatically isolated, particularly in Northeast Asia.
South Korea appears to the Japanese to have returned to a continental policy centered on Beijing and marked by unreciprocated indulgence of North Korea ― a country Japan’s Defense Agency regards as a “serious threat.”
Though Russia’s President, Vladamir Putin, visited Tokyo following the APEC meeting, the stopover was brief and inconclusive. Most Japanese seem to believe that China is Moscow’s preferred partner in Asia. It has accorded Beijing priority in the construction of oil pipelines, sells the Chinese army lots of very advanced weaponry, and refuses for now even to discuss the Northern Territories issue with the prime minister.
The Chinese, meanwhile, are increasingly perceived by Tokyo as an inevitable rival rather than a necessary partner, let alone a friendly neighbor. The political spectrum in Japan is moving to the right; nationalism is growing, and China is the current target of choice.
Prime Minister Koizumi regularly maintains that Sino-Japanese relations are in fair shape and should not be judged on the basis of a single issue ― his annual visits to the Yasukuni Shrine and China’s consequent refusal to hold scheduled bilateral meetings with him. But his assessment is openly contradicted by Beijing. And the absence of high-level meetings does deprive both governments of a mechanism for coping with current problems, while signaling to both the Japanese and Chinese public that something is seriously amiss in the relationship.
Virtually all of the Japanese I met expressed concern about the trajectory of Sino-Japanese relations, but few expected the current impasse to be broken soon.
For starters, Prime Minister Koizumi is not a typical consensus-building politician. His popularity is rooted in his reputation for independent thinking and solitary gestures. The more his critics push him to change course, the more stubbornly he digs in his heels. Nor are his visits to Yasukuni necessarily unpopular at home; indeed two of Koizumi’s most likely successors ― Abe and Aso ― have publicly indicated their plans to emulate these visits.
More broadly, resistance to accommodate China on the “history” issue is strong, because many in the government believe Beijing (1) uses the issue as a diplomatic tactic, (2) has self-consciously encouraged anti-Japanese sentiment through its own school textbooks and (3) dwells on Japanese misconduct in the 1930’s and 1940’s without generally acknowledging the peaceful nature of Japan’s post-1945 foreign policy. To be sure, prominent Japanese have for years suggested removing the names of Class A war criminals from the Yasukuni roster of war dead but this recommendation appears no closer to practical realization.
Does this mean that Asia’s two most powerful states are drifting toward a strategic rivalry which neither ostensibly desires? Some Americans regard this as likely, even inevitable. Some even seem to welcome it as grounds for expanding defense cooperation with Tokyo. I do not share that view. I believe it is easier to maintain close ties with Japan when Tokyo’s options do not seem so limited.
Intense Sino-Japanese rivalry would complicate our own ties with both countries. It could provoke a sharper division between continental and maritime Asia, generate a major arms race, force unpleasant choices on Korea (both North and South), and add a further layer of complexity to the Taiwan issue.
American officials have been relatively quiet on this issue. Sixty years after the end of the war, we prefer to look to the future rather than dwell on the past. I hope that Japanese, Chinese and Koreans will find a way of coming to terms with the history they share. Meanwhile, the risk of strategic rivalry between Tokyo and Beijing can be diminished if Chinese leaders resist the temptation to use this issue to put Tokyo on the defensive, and if Japanese leaders do not encourage that temptation through domestic political gestures that put their neighbors’ teeth on edge.

* The writer, a former U.S. ambassador to Japan, is a professor at Stanford University.

by Michael H. Armacost
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