World may suffer for China's distorted view that Japan is on the slide

Tom Plate says China's newfound assertiveness in its territorial disputes with Japan rests on a misguided belief that its rival is in decline - a mistake the world may have to pay for

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 16 January, 2014, 4:34pm
UPDATED : Friday, 17 January, 2014, 3:58am

Try it, you might like it: a sense of proportion. Avoid the extreme cry of apocalypse now - or, at least, of apocalypse soon. Stretch your intellectual and historical horizons to appreciate Japan as an expanse of more than just a few decades, or of even just a few centuries. It is a culture and a people that will endure.

Here are some obvious points. Japan is not about to tip over and fall into the Sea of Japan, not to mention into the East China Sea. It is millenniums old and culturally deep - as rooted as any society we have on earth. It is an archipelago of almost 7,000 islands, with a population of nearly 130 million. It may be ageing, as is much of Asia, but it is anything but unproductive or spent or destitute.

As Chris Patten, now chancellor of Oxford University and Britain's last governor of Hong Kong, rightly notes in reviewing a significant new book on Japan: "Japan's real per capita income has risen 0.9 per cent a year since 2002, faster than the US and Britain; unemployment even in the worst years of recession never rose above 5.5 per cent and was at 4.1 per cent at the end of 2012; social cohesion remains strong; its companies are more global than ever with huge overseas investments. Japan is still by a comfortable margin the third-largest economy in the world, with citizens on average eight times wealthier than the Chinese."

Japan may be ageing, as is much of Asia, but it is anything but unproductive or spent or destitute

These observations correctly reflect the theme and tenor of David Pilling's excellent new book, Bending Adversity: Japan and the Art of Survival. Pilling takes the long view about Japan: as it were, reports of its demise have been greatly exaggerated.

Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew - who, at 90, lived through the Japanese occupation, its second world war devastation and its relentless return to prominence - rightly notes that it would be "madness" to ever count the Japanese out. But with the mass international news media, still influential despite the splintering by social media, measured assessments are often rare.

Remember this? In the 1980s, Japan, the economic powerhouse, was "taking over" the world. But, by the next decade, debt-laden Japan was reported to be utterly "lost". How is such a sharp plunge from near-dominance into near-oblivion possible? It makes no sense. It is media yin-yang at its silliest.

But at least one major actor bought into the decline line: Beijing. As China's return to prominence on the world stage was cheered as historic, Japan's decline was framed in almost funereal terms. As if actually believing that win-lose narrative, Beijing began reasserting old claims almost fearlessly.

When you consider the risks of conflict between the globe's second- and third-largest economies, not just for East Asia but also for the world, is there any bilateral tension as idiotic and pathetic as two elephants shaking their tusks in a dumb quarrel over rocks named Senkaku (Japanese) or Diaoyu (Chinese)?

And, yet, that is where the sumo mat has been put down. As Beijing has been brassily advertising its air and sea territorial claims for all the world to see, in Tokyo, the government of Shinzo Abe has been rocking its tusks back in response. If compromise is in the air, it is not visible. Collision seems probable.

This could put at risk China's astonishing economic rise, and Japan's core relationship with the United States, which for the time being at least has no appetite for jumping into a serious conflict in East Asia. Yet Tokyo stubbornly digs in as China stubbornly persists. Neither political culture appears capable of facing reality, only saving face.

It is impossible to observe the Abe government without worrying about whether Japan will now take a bad turn. Let's face it: for two decades, its political culture has veered close to the resolutely unimaginative.

You wonder how such a fabulous country that has spawned the most skilful multinational corporations and universally admired technological products (not to mention phenomenal literature and awesome art, design and film) can throw up prime ministers and governments of such rigidity and banality as would challenge a satirist to further caricature.

One feels great sympathy for the population, which for decades has remained admirably and even stoically pacifist. But it now faces the reality of a China that has risen from a long sleep with pent-up energies eager to settle old scores.

And so the Japanese are weighed down with a shogun power culture underlying the structure of their dysfunctional party system.

The only obvious transformative option would be a reversion to imperial authoritarianism. That would surely prove a cure worse than the disease. But it could just be that China's new assertiveness will help push Japan in that direction faster than anyone realises.

Loyola Marymount Professor Tom Plate is the author of In the Middle of the Future: Tom Plate on Asia, as well as the Giants of Asia book series