China-Japan relations

China and Japan must learn the right lessons from history

Lanxin Xiang says while the allusion to 1914 maybe more relevant to Sino-Japanese ties today that many think, the more valuable historical lesson is that skilful diplomacy remains the wisest option

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 February, 2014, 12:12pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 February, 2017, 4:55pm

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's sensational statement at Davos claiming that the current relationship between Japan and China was akin to Anglo-German alienation in 1914, on the eve of the first world war, provoked an angry response from China. Foreign Minister Wang Yi said such a statement was "incomprehensible" and a "confusion of time and space".

But the Chinese are mistaken. Abe has a clear message in his claim. The idea comes from a long-standing US theme, the "China threat", promoted by the neoconservatives in the George W. Bush administration through the analogy of China being pre-1914 Imperial Germany.

The purpose of the analogy is to gain the moral high ground, since it brings to mind a democratic England fighting an authoritarian Germany. The logic is that a rapidly rising authoritarian regime will inevitably challenge liberal democracy through military conquest and territorial expansion. There is little doubt Abe is telling the world that China is a major threat to world peace and order.

But how effective is such a rhetorical offensive? Not very. Abe is not entirely wrong to use this analogy to describe the current state of Sino-Japanese relations, but it's unclear which side - China or Japan - most resembles Imperial Germany.

First, it is not clear that China is viewed by the world as today's German empire. By contrast, Japanese leaders' intention to revise modern Japanese history has triggered alarm bells. On top of this, there is the possibility that, for the first time after the second world war, the country will be re-militarised.

After all, the Meiji Restoration was modelled on Imperial Germany's rise in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Moreover, the recent behaviour of Abe and his administration, including the misstep of visiting the Yasukuni Shrine, has gone beyond what even Japan's best friend, the US, can tolerate. It raises the question of whether Abe's clumsy actions can be likened to those of Kaiser Wilhelm II, who was notorious for diplomatic gaffes, including sending a telegram to congratulate the Transvaal Republic for repelling a British attack during the Boer war, at a time when the two powers were not yet enemies.

Of course, China's behaviour also appears clumsy at times. The sudden announcement of its air defence identification zone in the East China Sea last year is one example. Although China is entitled to do so under international law, the way it handled this issue made it look bad in the eyes of the world.

The true lesson of the pre-1914 Anglo-German alienation should not be ignored. These two countries waged war even without any long-standing clash over vital interests. Germany was not interested in challenging Britain's vast overseas empire, while Britain had no intention of stopping the rise of German industrial power.

The problem was one of communication. One side offered something the other side did not want, and they both asked for something they did not really need. For example, Imperial Germany unwisely offered to help protect British colonial possessions, prompting fears in Britain that Germany was plotting a takeover. And Britain wanted to challenge the legitimacy of Germany's fledgling naval programme to maintain its superiority at sea.

It is hard to imagine that China and Japan will go to war over some rocks in the East China Sea, yet tensions are running very high. Ironically, Sino-Japanese economic ties remain strong and there are few other issues that could prompt a duel.

But one thing is different from 1914: the duelling between princelings. Never in Asian history have we witnessed so many princelings, the heirs of establishment families, in power at the same time: Abe, President Xi Jinping , the Philippines' Benigno Aquino, Park Geun-hye of South Korea, not to mention North Korea's Kim Jong-un and Singapore's Lee Hsien Loong; the list is long.

Asia is being run by a new generation of leaders. This privileged group is unaccustomed to each other's temperament; it will take time for them to fathom each other's character and intentions.

The princelings have at least two things in common: a strong sense of entitlement to power, and a strong desire to defend their nation's honour. Buttressed by rising nationalism in their country, territorial disputes have become a touchstone of power consolidation.

But most of the princelings are also pragmatic, because they have a sense of historical duty. Having witnessed their nation's tumultuous history, they are not about to make irrational decisions that will undermine vital interests. Sooner or later, they will realise that nationalism is a double-edged sword. Riding a nationalist tiger is a risky business; when thrown off the back of a fast-moving wild animal, the fall is bound to be heavy and painful.

In this context, Abe's 1914 rhetoric is misleading. But China should also start reflecting on its diplomatic missteps since the 2010 Association of Southeast Asian Nations' meetings in Hanoi, when China was isolated. Instead of working patiently with its neighbours, China reacted with anger and hasty decisions.

Xi has proposed a "new type of great power relations" with the US, but the meaning and content have yet to be clearly defined. The first step is for China to behave like a responsible great power with sufficient diplomatic finesse, patience and skill. It cannot afford to demonstrate an image of Imperial Germany, as Japan did in Asia in the late 19th century.

Japan never learnt to be a responsible great power, until now. Throughout its modern history, it has been unable to peacefully settle territorial issues with its neighbours.

An interesting question is: when was the last time China succeeded in establishing amicable and mutually beneficial great power relations, especially involving territorial disputes? The answer might be in its relations with Russia during the early Qing dynasty.

Through patient diplomacy, the Treaty of Nerchinsk (1689) - the peace accord between Russia and the Manchu Chinese empire - checked Russia's eastward expansion by removing its outposts from the Amur River basin.

The treaty prevented a potential Russian defeat and Russia gained China's implicit recognition as a state of equal status, something never achieved by other European countries.

One can learn a lot from great statesmen such as the Kangxi Emperor and Peter the Great.

Lanxin Xiang, a professor at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, is currently in Washington as a senior fellow of the Transatlantic Academy at the German Marshall Fund