Lessons for US in the Asian jungle

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 April, 2007, 12:00am

It is always fascinating for us geo-zoologists and political junkies to observe the behaviour of jungle animals trying to act as if they are getting along beautifully when in fact they basically can't stand each other.

That, for example, would be China and Japan - the two biggest elephants cohabiting the East Asian jungle. These elephants brandish enormous tusks for all to see, and when they tussle (as they do often) all the smaller animals of Asia feel the ground rumbling and take cover.

Just two years ago, angry mobs in China were smashing Japanese government offices and retail stores. Nationalist and anti-Japanese fervour rose as then prime minister Junichiro Koizumi defied Asian opinion with visits to a Tokyo war shrine.

Last week, the Japanese and Chinese elephants were making nice and indeed it was nice to watch. The occasion was the visit of Premier Wen Jiabao, , to Japan.

'He is like Asia's Clinton,' remarked an admiring female Chinese lawyer in Beijing, 'He is trying to show that once again soft power can work better than hard power.'

To this end, Mr Wen used his address to parliament (the first Chinese leader to address the Diet in 22 years) to stroke easily ruffled Japanese egos. While not ignoring the brittle issue of Japan's wartime history, Mr Wen emphasised the need to rise above old differences and move forward with an agenda of common interests.

Since his historic address was broadcast live not only in Japan but into China as well, it served to indicate to the people of both countries that it was time for everyone to stop smashing windows and visiting shrines and instead repair relations.

A top-ranking Japanese career diplomat said: 'Mr Wen's speech at the Diet was very interesting and overall well received by the political leaders in Japan.'

It should have been. For Mr Wen even expressed sympathy for Japan's quarrel with China's erstwhile ideological ally North Korea, accused of continuing to harbour Japanese abductees. The Chinese government would work to resolve the issue, he said.

The most important point is that Mr Wen was making every effort to convey to his own people as well as to the Japanese that the time had come to raise Chinese-Japanese diplomacy to a new level of maturity.

And so it is in this spirit that the bilateral ball is now in the court of the Japanese prime minister. In truth, Shinzo Abe made a good start last October by visiting Beijing, and looks to be considering another visit at the end of this year.

And later this month, Mr Abe looks to be headed for Washington for his first official visit. Let's hope the US president and top officials listen to Mr Abe as well as falter him. No doubt the prime minister will wish to suggest that the US pays too much attention to the Middle East and that the future of the world is in Asia and China - not over there.

The Japanese are worth listening to for many reasons. One is that they are an ally whose economy is on the rise again and whose military is technologically one of the world's most advanced.

Mr Wen, while in Tokyo, did his share of listening. The United States has a lot of ground to make up in the longevity department and listening to our elders might just be one way to get there as well.

Tom Plate is a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy. Distributed by the UCLA Media Centre