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Sino-Japanese relations

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.   

CommentInsight & Opinion

China and Japan must rise above interest group politics and avoid war

Lex Zhao says the worrying escalation of Sino-Japanese tension over the Diaoyus is the result of interest group politics, and citizens who don't want war must insist on continuing dialogue

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 02 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 02 May, 2013, 1:23am

Whenever I'm travelling around the European Union, I often sit and watch people crossing country borders as if they were strolling around one village, and merely passing a stop sign.

Back at home, though, things are different. The showdowns over the Diaoyu Islands seem to be escalating, with a group of Japanese nationalists attempting to land on the islands, and China sending military vessels in response, and then Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe threatening to use force if the Chinese dare to land. Both China and Japan are increasing military expenditure to build battleships and other weapons.

Will these lead to war, an accidental collision or shots fired due to a misunderstanding? Many are genuinely worried.

We should remember that border disputes are zero-sum games, even if resolved peacefully. Any confrontation or involvement of another party can lead to negative-sum games, given the cost of military build-ups, lost trade and investment, and perhaps increased antagonism or even hatred for decades afterwards.

The Diaoyu Islands are just a few barren rocks, far from other parts of China or Japan. There might be petroleum hidden beneath, but it would cost billions to extract. So, why the antagonism?

First and foremost, it is special interest groups who are driving things, as they would benefit from any military showdown, at the expense of ordinary citizens in both countries. By purchasing and nationalising the islands, Shintaro Ishihara and the like hoped to use the raised tensions to empower the Self-Defence Forces; the US military also wants to keep tensions high so it will be called on to "protect the order and safety" in the disputed areas and it can sell its weapons; Beijing is using the dispute strategically to divert domestic attention and anger away from internal problems of corruption, rising inequality and pollution.

Nationalism seems to be a last resort to hold the country together, after the death of communism and Maoism. It can connect the young and restless, especially after "centuries of foreign humiliation". To many, the so-called "Chinese dream" begins by bringing up past humiliations.

In short, these interest groups do not want the dispute to end, because they stand to lose from a peaceful and harmonious East Asia.

But why are the people so naïve as to be fooled by these groups? There are several factors. On the Japanese side, after two lost decades, ordinary people fear a rising China that has been booming for nearly three decades. This is aggravated by the fact that the Chinese political process is not democratic, military spending is opaque, and the dividing line between a military and private company is blurred.

Japan also fears that leniency on the Diaoyu/Senkakus dispute might lead to strategic disadvantages in border rows with Russia and Korea. These worries probably cause both Japan and the US to use the island dispute to lock up their strategic partnership, against domestic dissidents and international rivals.

On the other hand, ordinary Chinese seem to have a victim complex bordering on the hysterical when it comes to Japan (this is missing in border disputes with Russia, India and other neighbours), because Japan invaded and inflicted deep pain on China on several occasions. China remembers its past humiliations, though Japan chooses to forget recent history.

After three booming decades, China's gross domestic product has overtaken that of Japan. Some are feeling rich and they demand a voice both domestically and internationally. However, their voice on domestic matters is stifled, so only the international channel is open, and then only partially.

The country is also seeing a generation of former Red Guards take power at the top levels of government. This generation was not well educated and has a tendency to use force and disregard civil rules and negotiation. All this means that China tends to behave like a young man going through puberty, restless and anxious to flex its muscles once in a while.

Thus, it is clear that border disputes are games of special interest groups. Despite the recent showdowns, the future lies in long-term co-operation. However, are ordinary citizens wise enough to differentiate their own interests from those of the interest groups?

China and Japan are the world's second- and third-largest economies, and each is the other's major trading partner. They share many cultural traits and customs. Co-operation not only preserves peace, but could also lead to unlimited opportunities to share technology, markets, natural and human resources, management and governance know-how.

In order for confrontation not to escalate, the US, Japan and other countries should not panic. Instead, they should give China time to grow out of puberty by modernising its governance and democracy (or, even better, teach China how to do it). Japan should have the courage to face its recent history and be sensitive to neighbours' victim complex.

Meanwhile, China must realise that it is already a giant, and any flexing of its muscles will alarm other countries, possibly leading to an arms race. Japan has been demilitarised for the past 60 years; displays of force in disputed areas will only give Japan an excuse to rearm itself.

A conflict or war would burst China's housing bubble and stop economic growth, hurting the rich and powerful the most. Besides, an internally unbalanced government cannot win against a strong external enemy.

Practically, a window for dialogue should never be shut. For instance, both countries can set up telephone hotlines for emergencies; foreign policy should not be determined by the mass media, or the pilots and captains on the borders, but rather by the central governments; independent international committees can be invited on fact-finding missions when disputes occur. Hopefully, these measures can prevent worst-case scenarios and lead to higher-level co-operation.

Through painful experience, Euro-peans have learnt that without efforts to collaborate on both sides, border disputes can often lead to war. These lessons led to the creation of the EU, where citizens of different countries can walk hand in hand. I hope that, wherever I live, life can be so calm and harmonious.

Lex Zhao is a professor of economics at Kobe University in Japan. zhao@rieb.kobe-u.ac.jp

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This article is now closed to comments

whymak
Agreed. Costs of wars are immeasurable. When monetary cost -- not including human lives or else -- is totaled, one concludes that the money US spent to massacre as many as 4 million Vietnamese could have bought the entire country lock stock and barrel a few times over.
I think Beijing leaders understands this better than the West. All self-congratulatory messages about motherland aside, we are at best only on the threshold of a middle income country on GDP per capita basis after adjusting for purchasing power parity.
Neither Japan nor China could afford the luxury of a small scale military skirmish. Worse, it will thrust Japan (the Snow White) and the seven Dwarfs of Southeast Asia into the China containment camp, not to mention white Australia, whose vestigial racism and knee jerk English speaking instinct could become a non starter in China's needs for natural resources.
China faces an unpleasant fact. Despite her inability to project power both out of a sense of reality and customary historical role, i.e., minding her business in the Middle Kingdom, she could count her friends on fingers of one hand. She has lost the propaganda war to the West long ago.
That said. You must be reminded the truism that rich folks have lots of friends. Wait till China gets rich!
whymak
Agreed. Costs of wars are immeasurable. When monetary cost -- not including human lives or else -- is totaled, one concludes that the money US spent to massacre as many as 4 million Vietnamese could have bought the entire country lock stock and barrel a few times over.
I think Beijing leaders understands this better than the West. All self-congratulatory messages about motherland aside, we are at best only on the threshold of a middle income country on GDP per capita basis after adjusting for purchasing power parity.
Neither Japan nor China could afford the luxury of a small scale military skirmish. Worse, it will thrust Japan (the Snow White) and the seven Dwarfs of Southeast Asia into the China containment camp, not to mention white Australia, whose vestigial racism and knee jerk English speaking instinct could become a non starter in China's needs for natural resources.
China faces an unpleasant fact. Despite her inability to project power both out of a sense of reality and customary historical role, i.e., minding her business in the Middle Kingdom, she could count her friends on fingers of one hand. She has lost the propaganda war to the West long ago.
That said. You must be reminded the truism that rich folks have lots of friends. Wait till China gets rich!
whymak
Agreed. Costs of wars are immeasurable. When monetary cost -- not including human lives or else -- is totaled, one concludes that the money US spent to massacre as many as 4 million Vietnamese could have bought the entire country lock stock and barrel a few times over.
I think Beijing leaders understands this better than the West. All self-congratulatory messages about motherland aside, we are at best only on the threshold of a middle income on GDP per capita basis after adjusting for purchasing power parity.
Neither Japan nor China could afford the luxury of a small scale military skirmish. Worse, it will thrust Japan (the Snow White) and the seven Dwarfs of Southeast Asia into the China containment camp, not to mention white Australia, whose vestigial racism and knee jerk English speaking instinct could become a non starter in China's needs for natural resources.
China faces an unpleasant fact. Despite her inability to project power both out of a sense of reality and customary historical role, i.e., minding her business in the Middle Kingdom, she could count her friends on fingers of one hand. She has lost the propaganda war to the West long ago.
That said. You must be reminded the truism that rich folks have lots of friends. Wait till China gets rich!
One exception to my above statement is Hong Kong bananas. They have this abominable behavior, which I characterize as 憎人富貴厭人窮. Their disgusting attitude toward our mainland brethren is a case in point.
mrlcooper
The CCP has inflicted more misery on Chinese people than any foreigners and continues to do so.
whymak
The following was posted as a comment to a Letter to Editor:
In support of Mr. Peter Lok's letter, Western projections of its own unholy intentions often contribute much to demonize China. During 1962 Indian and Chinese conflicts over the McMahon line, a one-sided demarcation imposed by British colonial India on Qing Dynasty, the PRC took over Ladakh and Aksai Chin regions. Just as tens of thousand square miles of Assam Plain were about to fall to China, the PLA withdrew to its previous line of control before the conflict and released 2,100 prisoners of war, including a brigadier general, repatriating all captured weapons and materiel without extracting any concessions from India. A class act? You bet.
Tell me why Israel still occupies Jerusalem and the West Bank. The US still has bases in South Korea and China, none, in that divided country after the cessation of hostilities in 1952.
All defeated nations lost territories after WW 2. German gave up land to Poland and France, including former Prussian capital Koenigsberg to the Soviet Union. Austria lost the Dolomites (Tyrol and Trentino provinces) after WW 1 to Italy. But Japan is still allowed to its stolen territories from China after the war. Now tell me why.
hongkiejj@malaysiaboleh
having read so many articles and comments too as well, I find the lack of understanding why China has reacted so frustrated and cheese off at japan and usa is mind boggling.
no western papers including scmp has correctly or speak loudly of this and consistently. its mostly all china bashing...and I find this just ridiculous.
to cut this short, china and japan agreed to refer these rocks to the future to resolve and focus on economic co-operation. is that not an acknowledgement of a dispute ??
now that japan has so called brought these island knowing and I repeat, China has warned japan not to buy those rocks or face the consequences. the rest we all know.
china must and should stand on this issue firmly.
syracuse37
That is a great article that summarizes very well the situation, great peace of work.
megafun
NO WAR, why not? There will always be war-mongers and aggressive humans. Why not encourage them, who wishes to fight to go to that island and kill each other. I really wish more war mongers dies, so that our world will be a better & more peaceful place. So, all you yanks and ruskies, do join in and kill or be kill.
 
 
 
 
 

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