China-Japan relations

Past glory can't fix current woes in China or Japan

Kevin Rafferty says leaders' promise to revive greatness is misplaced

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 February, 2017, 4:55pm

As soon as he was installed as president, Xi Jinping pledged to fight for a "great renaissance of the Chinese nation and the Chinese dream". Simultaneously, in Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe promised to make Japan a "proud nation" again by getting rid of the pacifist constitution imposed by the American post-war occupiers.

You might say there is nothing, in principle, wrong with the ambition to be a great or proud nation, but China and Japan both carry potentially explosive historical baggage.

There is a larger question of whether great is a zero-sum game, and whether it is laudable or even achievable in the world of 2013 and beyond. Unfortunately, politicians see greatness as a reflection of their ability to ride roughshod to get their own way.

These are dangerous waters in which to sail, at least for anyone from the tired old West. After all, two centuries ago, didn't Britain become "great" because its Royal Navy commanded the oceans, allowing its traders to plunder the globe, invading anyone who stood in its way, installing new governments, redrawing maps across Africa and Asia in ways that made no sense, and of course causing mayhem across China when officials feebly objected to their people being force-fed opium?

In the last century, didn't Washington enforce Pax Americana, with the backing of its powerful navy and the help from time to time of CIA covert ops to topple a tiresome tyrant?

So why should Americans or Britons whinge if China is now throwing its weight around a bit, making friends all over the world with its ample aid funds, building bridges, dams, factories and power plants? So far, Beijing has not toppled governments, though it is supporting a host of unsavoury rulers.

As a Yorkshire-born Irish Catholic, I shall sail on and assert that my old folks were usually the oppressed; that the historical record of colonialism is mixed, and that today no nation can ignore the repercussions of its actions on others.

As I write, much of Japan has been suffering from the effects of pollution blown in from China. Is this an example of the greatness of China's economic miracle, or an unintended consequence showing that a polluting China is not yet such a great economic power?

How, Abe-san, would a new constitution or even fully fledged armed forces help you tackle the polluting dust?

No, Abe has it all wrong. Japan's greatness was to have recovered from the ashes of the war and rebuilt the economy under the pacifist constitution that he reviles. He should look into the historical record. In the 1950s, prime minister Shigeru Yoshida, the great rival of Abe's grandfather Nobusuke Kishi, was pressed by the Americans to step up defence spending, but he demurred, saying he needed to concentrate on the economy.

Japan's present constitution - with stretched definitions of what the self-defence forces are permitted to do - is fine. Amending it in the way that Abe proposes will stir up unnecessary trouble for Japan in its relationships with its neighbours with long memories of atrocities committed by Japanese. Abe needs to fix the economy. Japan is not merely suffering from deflation, it has also lost its competitive edge and sense of invention.

For China, the past is more difficult because of a longer history of hurt at the hands of too many other countries. Xi's priority also has to be the economy. Consumption must be encouraged through boosting jobs and developing services. Corruption is an immense problem. But it means tackling entrenched vested interests in the state-owned enterprises and in finance.

Instead of talking of restoring lost greatness, Xi, Abe and US President Barack Obama should be talking of how they can work together to fix the problems of a battered planet.

Kevin Rafferty is a political commentator