BEIJING — History is usually not very kind to Japan and China at the same time.
When one nation is doing well, the other one usually isn’t. In fact, this is the first time in 2,000 years that China and Japan are both strong nations at the same time, with ominous consequences.
In recent days, tens of thousands of Chinese protesters, many of them students, held startlingly violent anti-Japanese demonstrations in Beijing and southern Chinese cities of Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Chengdu, denouncing Japanese textbooks that they claim whitewash Japan’s wartime colonial brutalities.
Despite the massive columns of helmeted riot police, the protesters threw rocks and bottles at the Japanese embassy and ambassador’s residence and broke windows at Japanese supermarkets and restaurants in Beijing, leading the Tokyo government to demand an apology, as well as payment for destroyed property.
Animosity between the two nations is centuries old. And yet for Asia, and for the larger strategic paradigm which involves America’s interests, the rivalry may yet pose unprecedented new challenges.
The question driving the debate is: Who will lead Asia in the 21st century? For both nations, it is an issue of economics, security and national pride rolled into one.
For China, Japan is a recalcitrant power that is ignoring the atrocities of the past in its aggressive struggle to remain as the hub of Asia. For Japan, China is a rising ambitious challenger and authoritarian regime that refuses to move away from a stance of hatred and non-compromise.
Economic ties and tensions
At the moment, China and Japan are key economic allies — each is the top trade partner of the other.
China has surpassed the United States to become Japan’s number one trading partner, while Japan has been China’s leading partner for three years out of four. Both economies mesh together surprisingly well. China’s low-cost “factory of the world” has not been siphoning off many jobs from Japan’s high-tech industries.
Yet Japan still has much to fear from China.
For 30 years, Japan’s economy was the talk of the world: the incredible growth, the world-class companies, and the not-so-subtle intention of overtaking the United States as the economic heavyweight of the world.
Now, few believe Japan will be the center of Asia. With a very unimpressive growth recorded last year, is still struggling to recover from its decade-long economic slowdown.
Today, it’s China’s economy that everyone is talking about: massive growth, incredible export potential, and the not-so-subtle message that they may have other plans to go with their new economic clout. China’s growth is both impressive and concerning to many Americans, yet the nation that feels most threatened by this development may be Japan.
China is currently the world’s fastest-growing economy. With a GDP growth rate of around nine percent last year, it is also the world leader in attracting foreign investments. The numbers, for many people, signal a shift of the economic epicenter from Tokyo, to Beijing.
Tokyo does not appear ready to go down without a fight. Two weeks ago, Japanese leaders stressed the need to improve ties with India and they have also proposed reforming banking practices and encouraging scientific and technological innovation. However, it remains unclear if the strategy that served them well in the past will help them now.
While the economic rivalry between China and Japan has long gone unspoken, military issues have been openly disputed between the two nations.
Japan recently irked China when it announced, in partnership with the United States, that Taiwan represented a “mutual security concern.” Tensions have also been raised over the disputed Senkaku or Diaoyu islands. And Japan’s latest defense blueprint pinpoints China as a potential military threat.
Meanwhile China has sent ships into the area Japan considers to be its “exclusive economic zone.” China has done so to prospect for oil and gas deposits, although some Japanese now claim that China is also mapping the ocean floor for future submarine use.
The Japanese have reason to be suspicious. Less than a year ago, Japan detected a Chinese submarine in Japanese territorial waters. Beijing has also boosted its annual military budget to over $30 billion, which many Japanese consider a sign of aggressive build-up, though the figures pale in comparison with Japan’s own defense outlay.
China has also accused Japan of saber-rattling. Japan is expected to start production of U.S.-developed, land-based PAC-3 missiles that would be deployed in concert with the sea-based SM-3 missiles, for a joint U.S.-Japan missile defense system that China opposes. The Chinese suspect the system would cover Taiwan as well.
There has also been increased discussion in Japan over the once-untouchable Article 9 of the Japanese constitution. The article binds Japan to “forever” renounce war as an instrument of foreign policy. Many Chinese suspect that Japanese politicians’ call for altering the provision signals Japan’s dangerous ambition for a bigger military role in the world.
Clash over history
In many ways, the clash between Japan and China is all about history. China has regularly accused Japan of refusing to atone for its atrocities during the Second World War.
Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi’s pilgrimage to the Yasukuni Shrine, a memorial to war dead that include convicted top war criminals, has been a constant cause of Chinese indignation.
The latest flare-up over history is a result of the Japanese government’s approval of a controversial new textbook for 13 to 15-year-old students. The book refuses to describe Japan’s occupation of Asian countries as an “invasion.” The book also refers to the wartime Nanjing massacre-which killed more than a quarter million Chinese as merely an “incident,” and describes the disputed Senkaku islands as “sovereign territory.”
The dispute was made worse with Japan’s recent bid to join the U.N. Security Council. There was an outcry of protest across China after U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan backed a proposal to enlarge the council in late March. Within four days, over 11 million people had signed an online petition to oppose Japan gaining a permanent seat and veto power in the Security Council.
China’s Premier Wen Jiabao echoed the concern of his citizens regarding the U.N. Security Council when he stated that “only a country that respects history, takes responsibility for past history and wins over the trust of people in Asia and the world at large can take greater responsibility in the international community.”
For the United States, the Chinese-Japanese rivalry is further complicated by the shifting political attitudes of an important ally, South Korea.
As Seoul’s growth increasingly depend on China’s expansive economy, there are moves for greater political and security relationships as well, which could upset the U.S.-crafted alliances in Asia where North Korea’s nuclear program remains an explosive issue.
South Korea and China have effectively joined forces in opposing Japan, both on the U.N. Security Council and the textbook issues.
Economic ties between the two nations have also grown as China became the biggest recipient of South Korea’s investments for the last three years, supplanting the United States. Last year, it absorbed nearly half of all South Korea’s overseas investments.
After a recent visit to Beijing, South Korea’s defense minister also declared plans to bolster military cooperation, including joint military exercises with China. It was seen as a bold move as China fought on the side of North Korea during the Korean War.
A realignment of ties seems inevitable in some ways. “Definitely China and South Korea will get closer, economically and also militarily,” suggested China’s top international security expert Professor Yan Xuetong.
As a result, “the U.S.-South Korea alliance will definitely become less and less stable.”
While far from any armed collision, the emerging Japanese-Chinese rivalry and related shifts in regional alignments clearly presents a new challenge for the Bush administration.
While China’s continuing reform and cooperation in the war on terror have helped improve Chinese-American ties, the U.S. remains primarily committed to the defense and security of Japan as a major democratic ally.
How America’s interest might be affected by the struggle for supremacy in Asia still remains to be seen.
But it is clear that how China, Japan, the United States, and related alliances interact in the coming years will forecast Asia’s political landscape in the 21st century.
Eric Baculinao is an NBC News' Producer based in Beijing. Brian Newbury is a researcher in the NBC News Beijing Bureau.