There are few economies and societies on earth more complementary than China’s and Japan’s. The Chinese are relatively young, poor and restless and fiercely committed to economic growth. The Japanese are relatively old and sated, but technologically advanced and devoted to guarding their high standard of living. Proximity would seem to make the two nations ideally suited to benefit from each other.
But Japan is afraid of China’s rise, because the Chinese economy is so much more dynamic than Japan’s. And China is troubled by Japan, because the island nation seems to act as an unsinkable American aircraft carrier just off its coast.
Over the last year, nationalists in both countries have fought a war of words over the disputed islands that Japan calls Senkaku and China calls Diaoyu. Japan’s new right-wing prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has alarmed Chinese leaders with his calls for revisiting its commitment to pacifism, enshrined in the American-imposed postwar constitution, and for making the school curriculum more patriotic.
The long shadow of history continues to haunt relations between the two countries. In Asia, World War II started in 1937 as a Sino-Japanese war; millions of Chinese were killed as a result of Japan’s expansionism. But that does not explain why young people in China and Japan today are more inimical in their views of one another than their forebears — even immediately after the war — were.
The real explanation lies further back. Japan’s rise in the late 19th century was seen as an affront by China, which had always felt entitled to the mantle of regional leadership. Mao Zedong and other founders of the Chinese Communist Party adopted these views and bequeathed them to their successors.
Most Chinese today therefore regard Japan’s wealth, and its position as America’s main ally in Asia, as results of ill-gotten gains. Even when the Chinese state was at its weakest, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, its elites felt that the Confucianism China had exported to its key neighbors — Korea, Japan and Vietnam — was the root of a common culture. Other countries in the “Confucian zone” were supposed to simply accept China’s natural leadership.
Beijing’s policies in the South China Sea today resemble those of the Qing empire, China’s last ruling dynasty, in the late 18th century. The emperor then, Qianlong, liked to speak to the “myriad nations” to the south as a father would address his children. Current Chinese leaders, who are exerting their influence in countries like Vietnam and Laos, echo his paternalism.
It is unlikely that China’s neighbors will appreciate this now any more than they did then. Qianlong got involved in a war in Vietnam in the 1780s that severely weakened his empire. Since then, the countries in the region have had their own waves of nationalism, often in response to Western colonialism. Indonesia, a country of 248 million, does not regard itself as “small,” even compared with a giant like China. It is bound to seek to counter China’s power unless Chinese attitudes and policies change.
For its part, Japan veers between accommodating China and competing with it. Even though Japan’s imperialism is a thing of the past, some of the attitudes that gave rise to it persist. Mr. Abe, the grandson of a former prime minister regarded by many Chinese as a war criminal, seems to embody such views.
Although most Japanese recognize the importance of trade with and investments in China, national security at the moment seems more important.
Japan’s sins of omission in dealing fully with its past hinder its present foreign policy, but they pale in comparison with China’s historical sense of entitlement to regional hegemony and its virulent new form of state-sanctioned anti-Japanese nationalism. Sadly, these chauvinist attitudes are unlikely to change under the new Communist leadership installed in November.
Even China’s diplomatic language emphasizes toeing the party’s line on history rather than discerning present-day interests, and it assumes that only one position in international affairs — usually China’s — can be correct.
China today has much more to gain from cooperation with Japan than from conflict. Harping about past sins and inflaming the dispute over the islands do little good. If China is to become the predominant power in the region, it can only do so with Japan, not against it.
As France and Germany have demonstrated, perceptions can change when national interest demands it. But shifting Beijing’s thinking from hierarchy to cooperation will require strong leadership and a nuanced understanding of national interests. China’s recent leaders haven’t inspired much hope of either.
Odd Arne Westad, a professor of international history at the London School of Economics, is the author of Restless Empire: China and the World Since 1750.