China-Japan relations

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, 23 February, 2017, 4:55pm

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.