China and Japan must clear up misunderstandings, says academic
Kevin Rafferty considers a scholar's call for an effective multilateral organisation for wider Asia
The "unveiling" this week of Japan's newest warship, a US$1.2 billion, 248-metre-long helicopter carrier named the Izumo, has done nothing much to calm the already elastically taut diplomatic tensions in and around the China seas to the Pacific Ocean. On cue, a Chinese spokesman said, "We express our concern at Japan's constant expansion of its military equipment", while Japan protested the vessel's defensive purposes.
So it was by serendipitous chance that I recently had a long conversation with Professor Rana Mitter, one of the brightest brains of Oxford University and author of a seminal book on the war between China and Japan that raged from 1937 to 1945.
His wise advice is that China, Japan and the other Asian countries must first "cool it" and then sit down together and work out a wide-ranging multilateral settlement for the region, something Europe started doing soon after the end of the war.
"In the north Atlantic, we ended up with multilateral organisations, Nato, the EU, others that were able to contain and moderate disputes in the way the old League of Nations had failed to do," says Mitter.
"We never got that in 1945 in Asia because of the way that the politics ended up. It is high time that we abandon the alphabet soup that has not been working very well, things like Asean plus 3, Asean strategic partnership, Apec. Get together and create a stable multilateral organisation instead."
Mitter, who is about to become director of Oxford's China Centre, which next year moves into a new building largely funded by Dickson Poon, says that the first thing for China and Japan is "mutual comprehension of each other's thought systems. I phrase it that way, and I was going to say 'mutual understanding', but that makes it sound like some soft sentiment, like about getting together and playing guitar, and that's not what I mean at all".
Mitter's historical research showed Chinese nationalism and Japanese imperialism in the 1930s failed to understand each other and led to tragedy.
"Japanese imperialism was essentially outward-looking, aggressive and seeking to convert people to its point of view. Chinese nationalism was still then in a state of development, trying to work out what China was, whereas Japan was trying to shake up the whole of Asia," he says.
Today, he adds, China and Japan are much more balanced, but there is critical potential for misunderstanding. China largely fails - "and I am thinking of everyone from politicians making foreign policy decisions to educated people in everyday life" - to understand that Japan is a sophisticated society with many layers and many different views on leading issues, and that it cannot be assumed to have a blanket view.
On the other hand, in Japan, Mitter detects "a sense of fear that if taken too far could become almost paralysing because fears feed upon themselves. In particular is the concern that essentially the goal of China is some hegemonic dominance over the region."
What is the ambition of the Chinese leaders? "My answer would be that they want to stop the country falling apart. The long-term ambitions for the Chinese leadership are to stabilise China."
China nevertheless has ambitions to be a regional and global power. When a new government takes over in Asia, China would like the first phone call of the new leader to be to Beijing, not to Washington or Tokyo. At the moment, few would call first to China.
Mitter says that China has itself to blame for practising "unskilful diplomacy" recently after a period in the early years of the century when Beijing played a careful and cool hand.
He lists "everything from the maps inside the passport issue, confrontations in the South China Sea, the issue of Senkakus/Diaoyus, which has clearly escalated way beyond where it should ever have gone".
He suggests that China's leadership transition, including the arrest of Bo Xilai , was more turbulent than anyone suspected. "As a result, the neighbours have again become rather nervous about China. The Americans are more popular than they were, partly because of Obama's pivot to Asia, the feeling that the US will take the region more seriously again."
This is potentially a dangerous game to play because although the US has made its renewed commitment to Asia-Pacific, the last thing that the Americans want to do is to use their power, and the last thing the Chinese want is to come into direct confrontation with the US.
This might be the opportunity for Japan to play a catalytic role in understanding and helping China's process of socialisation with the international community. In the 20th century, in many ways, Japan was both a mentor and a monster for China.
But Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has to make a leap of imagination and understand both Japan's monstrous behaviour that left sores on China and the opportunities for mentoring a fellow ancient Asian civilisation. Mitter's suggestion is worth working on.
Kevin Rafferty is a professor at the Institute for Academic Initiatives, Osaka University