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]  Continue reading