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Japan Vs. China: The Other Clash of Civilizations?

Japan and China are increasingly at odds with each other. Why does the rest of the world need to worry?

January 20, 2006

Japan and China are increasingly at odds with each other. Why does the rest of the world need to worry?

It took Japan’s 60-year (and continuing) inability to address its war guilt to have the Chinese leadership become truly modern — and unleash the powers of Internet democracy “Made in China” into the world debate.

China, along with Korea, is engaged in a frenzied campaign to prevent Japan from gaining a permanent UN Security Council seat.

To make its point in the most astonishing manner, China’s leaders have let popular websites — such as — collect over 30 million signatures opposing such a move.

In light of other recent pronouncements, such as closer U.S.-Japanese security ties (now including Taiwan), the real issue goes well beyond Japan’s UN prospects.

Increasingly, the question becomes whether the two countries are headed for a brutal collision. As tempers rise in the region, even a possible war scenario between China and Japan — unbelievable though that may sound at first sight — cannot be dismissed.

This turn of events is all the more surprising, since Sino-Japanese economic ties are very close — and trade and investment flows are huge. But such ties, as we know from bitter history, have not prevented countries from going to war in the past.

Thus, economics may not provide a strong enough buffer as political and psychological relations between China and Japan have deteriorated to a point that would have seemed unimaginable just a few years ago.

Simply put, there is no trust between Japan and China — or indeed between Japan and its neighbors generally. In addition, both China and Japan are witnessing a resurgence of often quite virulent nationalism.

What aggravates matters further is that this current Sino-Japanese rivalry is occurring just as East Asia’s balance of power is shifting. What most people tend top forget is that, historically, China was the central power in East Asia, while Japan was on the periphery.

From the latter part of the 19th century until recently, that situation was almost completely reversed. In the face of the challenge of Western imperialism, Japan modernized all its institutions — especially its military and industry — and emerged as a thoroughly modern nation-state modeled on Prussia.

In contrast, China resisted reform — and plunged into an extended period of decline, anarchy and both civil and foreign warfare. Japan, meanwhile, used its newfound economic, political and military might to bludgeon its neighbors into servile submission.

In Japan’s first war against China in 1894, following which it colonized Taiwan, its spectacular military victories were accompanied by jingoistic and racist propaganda.

In newspaper illustrations of the period, Japanese soldiers were typically portrayed as strong, tall, muscular, very “Westernized” — and twirling with the fingers of each hand pig-tailed, buck-toothed scrawny Chinese.

This profound racism permeated Japanese attitudes in its subsequent wars against China in the first half of the 20th century.

The wanton massacres, mutilations, exploitation, rapes and experiments in biological and chemical warfare — such as infecting entire villages with the plague — can only be explained by the fact that the Japanese considered the Chinese less than human.

However, the biggest injury experienced by Chinese was not so much the blood that was shed, but the humiliations they endured at the hand of the Japanese.

Japan lost World War II, but — thanks to the cold war and China’s communist revolution — decisively won the subsequent peace.

U.S. policy sought the full rehabilitation of Japan through rapid economic recovery, international integration and absolution for past atrocities.

Well into the late 1980s, Japan’s GDP was equivalent to that of all other Asian economies combined. As a consequence, it was assumed that the “Pacific Century” would be led by Japan — with the rest of Asia serving as its backyard.

Then, in a dramatic reversal of fortunes, the Japanese economy tanked in the course of the 1990s — while the Chinese economy surged.

History is flipping the development of the last 100 or so years on its head. Nowadays, it is Japan — not China — that is ardently resisting reform and desperately basking in past glories. As a result, the land of the rising sun has plunged itself into an extended period of decline.

And just as the industrialized West is losing its edge, it is China — not Japan — that is keen on modernizing many of its institutions, especially in the economic sphere.

China’s leaders seem keen on emulating Prussian traditions, in the sense of creating a truly state-of-the-art self-improvement and modernization model — as one hopes, with less emphasis on the military dimension.

Accordingly, the struggles in the shift in balance of power occurring between China and Japan are taking place on many levels and involve many issues — including territory, energy, leadership in Asia and also Japan’s attempt to get a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

What is truly astounding is the degree of Japanese insensitivities, which stand in stark contrast to how the other major Axis Power of World War II — Germany — has dealt with its own actions during that time.

Japanese insensitivity includes the recent case of a Japanese company “renting” over 100 Chinese prostitutes for an orgy that occurred in Southern China on the same date as the memorial for the Nanjing massacre.

Official prime ministerial visits to the Yasukuni shrine — where Japanese war criminals repose — or the revision of history textbooks in which the rape of Nanjing or the sex slaves are not mentioned, provide other examples of unnecessary Japanese provocations.

The real danger now facing the region and the world is that all the pent-up ill will and popular outrage could spill over into military provocations, skirmishes — or worse.

There is little doubt that such a Sino-Japanese conflict would have catastrophic global consequences. The West must do everything it can to prevent this disaster scenario.

The first task is to ensure that nothing is done to exacerbate the situation. And in that context, Washington’s recruitment of Japan as an ally in its confrontation with Beijing over Taiwan has added much fuel to an already explosive situation.

Second, the West must oppose Japan’s candidacy for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, until such time when it will be truly at peace with its neighbors.

Third, it should propose a high-level commission from say France, Germany and Poland to advise Japan on how to achieve proper reconciliation — and what steps must be taken (and which acts must be avoided) to realize that goal.

This commission would serve as a powerful means of moral suasion and would be a positive example of spreading “European values,” which — given the decades-long agony over Japan’s missing apology — would be highly welcomed in Asia.

After its own disastrous modern history, preventing needless conflagrations in time increasingly becomes Europe’s “mission civilisatrice.”