The relationship between the two largest economies in Asia has been marred throughout the 20th century due to territorial and political disputes including Taiwanese sovereignty; the invasion of China by Japan in the second world war and Japan’s subsequent refusal to acknowledge the extent of its war crimes; territorial disputes surrounding the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands and associated fishing rights and energy resources; and Japanese-American security co-operation.
Japan should rethink US ties and improve relations with China
Changing times necessitate new thinking. Japanese who believe that their country's security alliance with the US has become a hindrance rather than a benefit certainly think so. An alleged rape by American servicemen in Okinawa, home to about half of the 47,000 US troops in the country, has amplified calls for a reshaping of relations. The position has been given greater impetus by a former diplomat's bestselling book, in which he claims the US forced from office politicians, prime ministers among them, who disagreed with its policies.
Ukeru Magosaki's assertions would at first seem far-fetched, given Japan's democratic constitution and the seriousness with which its citizens take the electoral process. A suggestion of foreign interference in politics would be greeted with outrage. But the security pact, in place since the end of American occupation after the second world war, neatly aligns with the US-drafted constitution, which permits Japan a military only for self-defence. The reliance on the US for regional protection makes more believable the book's claim that Washington-friendly people are embedded in government, politics, business, academia and the media to exert influence.
Times have changed markedly since the pact was signed 60 years ago. The US was then the most dominant power and Japan and other Asian nations welcomed its economic help and military support. But China's rise has brought that era to a close. For Japan, it is a choice between letting its US alliance drive a wedge between ties with Beijing or forging more equal terms so that it can improve relations across the East China Sea.
As China's backlash over the disputed Diaoyu islands bites economically, with a sharp drop in exports, especially vehicles, the decision seems obvious. Japanese companies want greater access to the world's most dynamic market. Japan's moribund economy would get a much-needed kick to stave off the danger of another recession. But the US sees its presence as being as much about trade and investment as a check against China's rise. It has beefed up its military in the region under President Barack Obama's Asian pivot, increasing the risk of conflict.
Escalating rivalry between the US and China is worrying for Japan. Yet the US presence eases fears of threats from China and North Korea. Japanese should remember, though, that no matter what deal Washington signs, it always puts its own interests first. They should consider life out of the American shadow, with neutrality being the ultimate goal.