What’s Up with China and Japan?

Tension charges the Pacific rushing to fill the global atmospheric voids and drenching the

Lightning over the South China Sea (Dean Mullin)

Lightning over the South China Sea (Dean Mullin)

world’s peoples with anticipation of the first lightning strike of the storm, that violent discharge of energy that loose the bonds of war.  Friends and colleagues scattered throughout the Asian Pacific Islands are convinced that the storm, should it unleash, will begin between China and Japan.  Their opinions are echoed by no less than U.S. Pacific Command commander. “I am concerned,” Admiral Samuel Locklear, Commander of US Pacific Command, told reporters here when asked about the current state of tensions between Japan and China. “I would say that any time you have two large powers, two large economic powers, two large military powers that have a disagreement that they’re not talking to each other about, that has no clear diplomatic end state in sight, that the cost calculation can grow….”[1]  Another writer describes Japan as an ‘unsinkable American aircraft carrier’ and cites that as the red flag waving in the dragon’s face.  Are the economic and military dynamics between China and Japan the only reasons for the rising storm?  

Engagement first sino-japanese war (oil painting) (Wikipedia Commons)

Engagement first sino-japanese war (oil painting) (Wikipedia Commons)

Scholars are all over the geopolitical spectrum on Sino-Japanese history and the causes of the centuries old rift between China and japan.  Oh, the learned men and women agree on the major dates of specific milestones between China and Japan:  China’s first mention of Japan about 2000 years ago followed by cultural exchange; Japanese sovereignty and diplomatic relationship development about 400 years later and their first war 200 years after that; a long period of mutually beneficial maritime trading until the 1600s; Japanese piracy during that same time frame; and the final tearing of the Sino-Japanese relationship beginning in 1598 with Japan’s Hideyoshi’s Korean invasions through the reign of the Shoguns, World War I, World War II, the Cold War and here we are. 

After reading a selection of diverging analyses, struggling through dynastic timelines and cultural sidebars designed to drive my little engineering brain straight round the twist; it hit me that China and Japan are simply two peas fighting over the same pod.  They are the Asian Pacific long version of the U.S.’s feuding families; the Hatfields and McCoys.  It is nice to back on solid, quasi-Boolean ground with comfortable true-false options. 

O.E. Westad, London School of Economics, opines that Japan is unnerved by China’s dynamic economy, which puts Japan’s to shame.  He lays the rising tide of the Chinese youth’s resentment, bordering on hatred, of Japan back on the Chinese leadership of the 19th century. 

“…The real explanation lies further back. Japan’s rise in the late 19th century was seen as an affront by China, which had always felt entitled to the mantle of regional leadership. Mao Zedong and other founders of the Chinese Communist Party adopted these views and bequeathed them to their successors. 

 Most Chinese today therefore regard Japan’s wealth, and its position as America’s main ally in Asia, as results of ill-gotten gains. Even when the Chinese state was at its weakest, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, its elites felt that the Confucianism China had exported to its key neighbors — Korea, Japan and Vietnam — was the root of a common culture. Other countries in the “Confucian zone” were supposed to simply accept China’s natural leadership.

Beijing’s policies in the South China Sea today resemble those of the Qing empire, China’s last ruling dynasty, in the late 18th century. The emperor then, Qianlong, liked to speak to the “myriad nations” to the south as a father would address his children. Current Chinese leaders, who are exerting their influence in countries like Vietnam and Laos, echo his paternalism.

It is unlikely that China’s neighbors will appreciate this now any more than they did then. Qianlong got involved in a war in Vietnam in the 1780s that severely weakened his empire. Since then, the countries in the region have had their own waves of nationalism, often in response to Western colonialism. Indonesia, a country of 248 million, does not regard itself as “small,” even compared with a giant like China. It is bound to seek to counter China’s power unless Chinese attitudes and policies change….”[2]

Westad’s foreign policy approach has great merit[3], but the recent Japanese history of the atrocities committed in China during World War II cannot and should not be ignored.  The Japanese government continues to deny its World War II crimes in China and the U.S. did little to hold the Japanese government responsible. The Nanjing massacre, according to Japanese revised history, was a lie that the U.S. used to excuse the use of atomic weapons.  The war criminals that led the Nanjing Massacre are enshrined by the Japanese as ‘martyrs’.  Japan’s Prime Minister visited the shrine in December 2013 and his tribute and revisionist views continue to draw global rebukes.[4]  Although graphic, the world’s citizens need an awareness of the level of Japan’s atrocities at Nanjing between December 1937 and February 1938.[5] While Japan is busy building its military might, China is busy expanding its walls.  In The Tyranny of History-The Roots of China’s Crisis,[6] W.J.F. Jenner explains China’s walls in Chapter 5:

“This is a chapter about enclosures, walls and boxes.  Walls on the ground and walls in the mind.  Enclosures within which all can be controlled and safely structured. Outside is otherness and danger.  Between the safety inside and the uncontrollable outside are few windows through which to look in or out.  The best enclosing walls are solid, high and unbroken, except for gateways that can be guarded.  If the wall can have a moat round it, so much the better…”

China is expanding its walls in the disputed islands with Japan.  It is expanding its walls in

Watchers at full alert.

Watchers at full alert.

the Philippines and other places in the South and East China seas.  I doubt China’s ‘wall-construction’ will stop until it is stopped by external forces.  It is no small wonder that the entire Pacific resembles a meerkat colony alert and watching the jackal; they are nervous and they have every reason to be.

There is another perspective to consider and that is the rootstock from which modern China and modern Japan grew; fascism, a social theory for which the indispensable ingredient is violence.  Most of us raised within the Western Cultural framework, whether we like it or not, are suffused with the precepts of classical liberalism of Thomas Jefferson and Frédéric Bastiat; free markets, free trade, toleration, and civil liberties.  We writhe and fight with our own governments efforts to force centralization, the welfare state, and a substantial government presence in economic and social life down our throats.  Most of us cannot wrap our Western minds around fascism matured over 2000 years in the oak casks of China and Japan.  Yet our Western governments persist in developing and implementing foreign policies that interfere with an internal working in both countries foreign to the Western psyche.  So far, Western foreign policies have not wrought desired results in the East. 

Hatfields & McCoys Devil Anse and THe Haifield's. customize imagecreate collage. Devil Anse and THe Haifield's - hatfields-and-mccoys Photo

Hatfields & McCoys Devil Anse and THe Haifield’s. customize imagecreate collage. Devil Anse and THe Haifield’s – hatfields-and-mccoys Photo

As with the Hatfields and McCoys no angels can be claimed for either side of the story. There is more than enough history on both sides of the ‘China-Japan coin’ to warrant a request for a clean slate and reasonable people to find solutions.  The alternative is that each side will use the past to justify future aggression.  China and Japan have grown up in so many ways that if they begin to fight like children, the rest of the world will suffer greatly.  No longer can the West pop some popcorn and pull up a seat to watch the fireworks, we will be in the thick of it. 

What are the chances this approach will work? Well, miracles happen but I doubt, given the players in the East and in the West, that a

Fears Over Chinese Nukes (WikiLeaks )

Fears Over Chinese Nukes (WikiLeaks )

miracle will happen this time.  China is surging forward like a possessed dragon.  Its military and economic might is at an all-time high, but the leadership elected last November indicates the future holds ‘more of the same’ philosophy and action.  For Japan’s part, the Emperor still sits on his throne and the nation, with its last election, donned its natural hawk-like mantle as if the last 70 years never happened.   



[2] New York Times; Opinion; January 6, 2013; ODD ARNE WESTAD; In Asia, Ill Will Runs Deep; http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/07/opinion/why-china-and-japan-cant-get-along.html?_r=0

[3] Restless Empire: China and the World since 1750; Odd Arne Westad; http://restlessempire.com/buy/

[4] Global Post; Yonhap News Agency; January 24, 2014; China FM: Abe’s shrine visit shows ‘erroneous view of history’; http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/yonhap-news-agency/140124/china-fm-abes-shrine-visit-shows-erroneous-view-history

[5] University of Maryland, Baltimore County; Japanese War Crimes—- NANJING MASSACRE RECORD; http://www.csee.umbc.edu/~kunliu1/Nanjing_Massacre.html

[6] The Tyranny of History: The Roots of China’s Crisis (Penguin History); December 1, 1994; W. J. F. Jenner; http://www.amazon.com/The-Tyranny-History-Chinas-Penguin/dp/0140146776

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