Confronting the past

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 August, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 August, 2003, 12:00am

The accidental discovery of buried canisters of mustard gas, abandoned by Japanese troops in China more than 50 years ago, is only the most recent tangible reminder of the unfinished legacy of the second world war. Forty mainland workers were injured when the barrels of nerve gas were cut open, and one has died - one more incident to add to the register of historical grievances that China holds against Japan.

That bitter past has not prevented the two countries working out a functional and progressive relationship. The two governments have apparently decided that pragmatism should prevail over the physical and psychological scars of war.

It is unclear how long that can continue. Japan and China are changing, like the rest of the world. Failure to acknowledge and work through the past could prevent them establishing the peaceful and stable relationship that is essential to security and prosperity in East Asia. To help that process along, my think-tank, Pacific Forum CSIS, along with the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation and the Asia Foundation, has co-hosted a series of retreats for young opinion leaders from the two countries. We met last week in Montana to discuss the issues that divide Japan and China, and to seek solutions.

Participants from both sides acknowledged that the two countries were of vital importance to each other and the region as a whole; there was agreement that good relations are a must. Unfortunately, they also agreed that diplomacy had failed to create a genuine atmosphere of reconciliation and friendship.

Japanese participants blamed an education system that failed to look squarely at the past. The Chinese argued that grievances were real, but they were also manipulated by politicians who played the history card for domestic political reasons.

Our Chinese participants feared that this tendency would only get worse. They expressed concern over a rising sense of nationalism in China at the grassroots level, born of economic success and the confidence it creates. This nationalism often targeted Japan - and the Chinese politicians who seem reluctant to hold it accountable for its past.

Changes in China are part of a more comprehensive transformation. Both Chinese and Japanese spoke of 'identity crises' as their societies grappled with a changing environment.

Our meeting highlighted the perception gaps that magnify the divisions. We compiled a list of the chief obstacles to good relations and had each person identify the three most important. The Chinese put Taiwan at the top, yet it was a topic that no Japanese identified. Japanese pointed to the military threat posed by China, an issue our Chinese representatives had not considered.

Ironically, this perception gap was made worse by what one Chinese participant labelled 'the burden of double expectations'. Because Chinese and Japanese are similar in so many ways, they expect the other to be like them, to react like them, and even to overcompensate for the differences that emerge. When that does not happen, the anger and sense of betrayal are even sharper.

Those differences underscore a critical point: while Japan and China have similar objectives and interests, their relationship does not rest on a foundation of shared values. This conceptual gulf puts even more stress on the trust the two countries have in each other. Yet that trust is in short supply. Our Chinese participants voiced concern about the prospect of Japanese remilitarisation, which virtually all Japanese dismiss. The Japanese worried about China's military modernisation, something the Chinese thought was unfounded.

Understanding this situation is relatively easy; fixing it is another matter. Virtually all our participants agreed that the two countries should not rely on governments to do all the work. Our discussions endorsed many of the traditional remedies: increasing grassroots exchanges and other forms of face-to-face contact.

The absence of shared values suggests another strategy. While calling for more grassroots contact, one Chinese participant also argued for depersonalising relations. If the relationship is plagued by 'double expectations', then moving it to a more pragmatic level might purge some of these attitudes. A more businesslike relationship, based on the pursuit of common interests and shorn of unrealistic expectations, will prove more productive and healthy over the long run. Such a relationship will not heal the wounds of the past - nor should it. But it could provide a framework that allows the two countries to confront those legacies more directly.

Brad Glosserman is director of research at Pacific Forum CSIS, a Honolulu-based think-tank


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Confronting the past

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