Familiarity breeds contempt

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 02 September, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 02 September, 2004, 12:00am

Two weeks in China have left me deeply disturbed about the nation's future relations with Japan. A smooth and co-operative Sino-Japanese relationship is essential to regional peace, stability and prosperity. Yet, increasing interaction has generated as many irritants as insights into the other country.

I am not sure that increased contact will create the understanding needed to build that relationship, but increasing integration will help. As in a boxing match, it is harder to punch while in a clinch.

At the level of high politics, the relationship is solid. The two leaderships (from the prime ministers down) have regular meetings.

At the grassroots level, the numbers are encouraging. Last year, 2.25 million visitors (of China's 7.26 million Asian tourists) came from Japan, making it the No1 source of tourists. About 452,000 Chinese visited Japan in 2002.

Economic relations are positive. Chinese statistics show that the trade volume between the two nations topped US$130 billion last year, an increase of 30.4 per cent from the previous year, and two-way trade is expected to exceed US$150 billion this year, marking six years of continuous growth.

Yet for each of these positive signs, there is a disturbing 'other side of the coin'. Despite growing exchanges and grassroots' efforts, the two publics have negative impressions of the other. One survey last year showed that 28.4 per cent of Japanese think relations with China are good or very good; 31.5 per cent think they are bad or very bad, and 30.4 per cent could not judge (the remainder did not answer).

Another found that 93.1 per cent of Chinese internet users do not like Japan. Similarly, the most negative attitude towards China is found among young Japanese, who are increasingly resentful of Chinese efforts to assume the moral high ground on every issue.

Outside observers sometimes blame competition for regional leadership between Japan and China as fanning the ill will. The fight over the route of a Russian oil pipeline is the most obvious evidence for this claim. But that explanation is not convincing. Both sides play down the notion of serious competition.

The problems are rooted in the past, not the future. In a word, it is history, and the issue is growing with the passage of time, not receding. Chinese officials have made it abundantly clear that Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's visits to the Yasukuni Shrine are the primary impediment to improving official bilateral relations.

Japan does serve as a scapegoat in Chinese domestic politics. Beijing's policies towards Hong Kong and Taiwan are failing, and frustrations with the US are mounting. Since all three of those topics are sensitive, Japan has become the politically acceptable outlet for anger.

There is another domestic angle to anti-Japanese sentiment: the Chinese have precious few opportunities to voice political dissent. They can protest at Taiwan's elections, US unilateralism and Japanese arrogance. 'Anti' is acceptable. Mass demonstrations are their only means of having input - or feeling as though they have input - in political decision-making.

If this interpretation is correct, there is little chance that relations will improve without strenuous efforts in that direction. Yet the deep-rooted animosity in China will discourage any serious work to achieve that goal.

The best option, then, is government-encouraged integration to increase interdependence and mutual vulnerability. The tighter the linkage of the two countries' fates and fortunes - whether politically or economically - then the less room there will be for abuse or profiting at the expense of the other.

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