China and US must include Japan in talks on security of East Asia

Tom Plate says Beijing needs to rethink its policy towards Japan for the good of the region

PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 June, 2015, 5:12pm
UPDATED : Monday, 29 June, 2015, 5:12pm

Let us divide tense East Asia, Caesarean fashion, into three geopolitical parts. One is Chinese, the other is Japanese, and the third is - yes - American (even though, as the Chinese are inclined to point out, America is not exactly native to East Asia, right?). By the way, no disrespect intended towards Koreans, but they cannot compose a fourth because of their own division into two parts - a peculiar Korean-style Caesarean sectioning.

Last week, representatives of two-thirds of geopolitical East Asia met to calm tensions. The occasion was the worthy US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, with both sides in Washington hoping to talk through bilateral differences and potential confrontations. An excellent idea: the world doesn't need any more wars, and East Asia doesn't need any. But the issues are tough, complicated and the Sino-US relationship continues to need immense work. It is to the credit of the two governments that this urgent task is not lost on them.

But it is also fair to ask how betterment of the East Asian neighbourhood can be achieved if a third of it is excluded from the management committee. No doubt, if East Asia's remaining third had been sitting at the table as well, Beijing wouldn't have shown up at all; or if it had, the talks would have been nightmarish. Even so, it might also be speculated that sectioning Japan off to the side might well prove a serious miscalculation.

Japan, after all, is not remotely a Greece, suddenly the world's saddest modern economy. On the contrary, its per capita income dwarfs China's, and for a population of a mere 127 million, the fact is that its overall economy probably ranks No3 worldwide, even above powerhouse Germany. What's more, the Japanese people, according to opinion polls, while remaining pacifist and anti-nuclear, have begun to worry about the soundness of their China tack: go with the prevailing winds, just sell and buy, don't argue, and everything will be A-OK.

China is now Japan's No 1 foreign preoccupation, and the US second. The political impact is titanic. "To be successful, Japanese leaders must persuade their public that cooperation with China will reduce Japan's vulnerabilities rather than exacerbate them," advises Japan expert Sheila Smith, senior fellow on the US Council on Foreign Relations, via her surpassingly comprehensive book Intimate Rivals: "The old ways of managing its relationship with China are no longer effective."

Japan has begun viewing China more as an existential challenge than as just a jolly-good super-big-time importer and exporter. The causes of this sea change are many, but of course the various claims and counter-claims - and bumps - in the East China Sea have scarcely bolstered bilateral comity. Another is that China's advocacy of a worldwide policy of non-interference in a country's internal affairs (especially its own) tends not to apply to Japan's internal affairs.

Japan is certainly vulnerable to criticism, as is any country. China and others often complain about its "bulimic" memory, especially regarding war atrocities. But as Smith points out, the unintended result of all the nagging is to harden domestic sentiment against China. It is no coincidence that the two most politically significant Japanese prime ministers in recent times have been the showy war-shrine-visiting Junichiro Koizumi and the overtly nationalistic Shinzo Abe. Note, too, that indignant right-wing pressure groups and lobbies that do wish China serious ill have juicy new leases on political life and the Japanese are now debating whether to revise their constitution to expand their military space and, presumably, jump into an East Asian arms race with that good old fighting spirit.

There is immense irony here, and it is truly heart-breaking. Smith points out with poignant perspective that support from the Japanese public for grandstanding PM visits to war shrines and the like actually has been undergoing structural erosion due to generational turnover. And, she reports, the nation's nationalistic right wing is actually less unified than fragmented: all Japanese conservatives are not cut from the same grumpy cloth. But harrowing sea confrontations between fishing vessels and military ships serve to narrow differences; loud rhetoric from Beijing plays into the wrong political hands. Instead of winning over public opinion, Chinese policy would appear to be making the Japanese wonder about their military readiness. Wasn't it Sun Tzu who wrote: "The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting"?

Beijing's policy towards Japan needs to be rethought. Smith's definitive book nails the point that Japanese foreign policy in general (and towards China in particular) is almost entirely driven by domestic politics, pressures and lobbies. There is no overall conceptual framework; the national emotion is becoming increasingly existential.

The problem for Chinese as well as Japanese diplomacy is daunting. Both nations field diplomats of exceptional talent and cosmopolitan subtlety; they understand each other's domestic problems; and, when the two sides do talk, they come away believing that deft diplomacy can somehow heal all wounds. That might be true if the bilateral relationship were being left entirely to the diplomats. But it's not. Pugnacious groups on both sides are gaining leverage, and mutually respectful diplomacy loses out to petty pugnacity, especially over stupid territorial issues. As Smith concludes: "The potential for heightened tension - and perhaps even conflict - will make it increasingly difficult to go back to Deng Xiaoping's approach to leaving the problem to future generations to resolve."

And so to recycle Caesar yet again: all East Asia will remain in three unhappy parts until and unless all three parts get their acts together. Without that, there surely will be conflict. Trilateral issues require triangular diplomacy. No one should be excluded. It is very dangerous. China's Japan policy is in a box that Beijing has got to begin thinking itself out of. That won't be easy, but it is mandatory for East Asian peace and security.

Professor Tom Plate, a former editor of the editorial pages of the Los Angeles Times and founder of Asia Media International, is the author of Conversations with Lee Kuan Yew. This column is one in a series of fortnightly essays for this newspaper