In recent weeks, the leaders of East Asian archrivals China and Japan have exchanged unusually amicable feelers. Shinzo Abe, Japan’s hard-right premier, met with Chinese President Xi Jinping and PM Li Keqiang on the sidelines of the APEC and ASEAN summits. “Recently, China-Japan relations have been gradually improving and there is a positive momentum,” Li told visiting Japanese business chiefs in Beijing shortly afterward. Reported Abe following his encounter with Xi: “President Xi stated that the meeting represented a new start for Japan-China relations, and I completely agreed.”
After a five-year-long nadir in bilateral ties, such talk raised hopes for significant improvement. Friendly relations between the two powers would, of course, provide a big boost to peace and prosperity throughout the Asia-Pacific region. And their economies are generally complementary. But a couple of fundamental obstacles stand in the way.
The first is largely a matter of perception, especially within the international community. Many people actually seem to think of China and Japan as equals, or near-equals – a tendency particularly pronounced in the Western world. That is a result of history, politics and propaganda, converging in a single fact: Post WW2, Japan is the US-led imperium’s chief representative in Asia, while the People’s Republic of China is the Empire’s chief bogey there.
This canard must be laid to rest once and for all: China and Japan are NOT equals, or anywhere near equals. China is much bigger, older and civilizationally richer. The Chinese economy is already more than twice the size of Japan’s, and China’s overall national strength substantially exceeds its neighbor’s.
More importantly, these gaps are set to widen in the foreseeable future — in China’s favor. In power terms, China is the United States to Japan’s United Kingdom. In cultural terms, China is the United Kingdom to Japan’s United States. In the past 150 years, China’s weakness was a historical aberration, as was Japan’s strength. This abnormal period is now over. So looking ahead, expectations stemming from the notion of parity or near-equality between the neighbors should be junked in favor of reality. Therein lies a prerequisite to all sustainable solutions.
Which brings us to the second, more rudimentary problem. There is only one way that lasting Sino-Japanese amiability can be restored: Japan must come clean on its unprovoked atrocity against the Chinese nation during the 1930s and 40s. No more wishy-washy, insulting “regrets” or “remorse” about the 20-plus million Chinese civilians killed by the Japanese Imperial Army.
A through-going, unequivocal act of contrition is essential. Once that takes place, the wounds can begin to heal. Japan will recognize and accept China’s centrality in East Asia’s natural order, and China will reciprocate with generosity. Under the Confucian ethos, younger brother gives elder brother due respect, and elder brother returns it by giving all manner of benefits, including security. Peace will reign under heaven.
The United States, of course, will resist such a scenario with all its might. Its realization would mean the end of the American Empire’s East Asia wing. But recent events – especially Donald Trump’s Asian tour — have made it clearer than ever that China is set to displace the US as the region’s dominant power, restoring the historical status. China’s leaders, chastened by their country’s Century of Humiliation, know that the only viable way forward for all nations in the 21st century is mutually beneficial cooperation. That’s now enshrined as the unofficial animus of Beijing’s foreign policy.
For Japan, the wise course would to break free of the predatory Western imperium and return to Asia, where harmony among states has traditionally been the guiding ideology. It will be tough, but perhaps not impossible, especially with a little help from China and Russia. Since the Meiji Restoration of 1868, Japan has looked West obsessively, learning and adapting all things Western quite brilliantly. In the process it has neglected its Asian soul. It’s time for Japan to come home.