A Friday Night Date that Will Never Happen

Can you imagine what would happen if China and Japan became an item in East Asia? What would the process be and the consequences? It’s tough and you’re not alone – for more than a century these two have been Asia’s least happy pair of neighbors. However much each might want what the other has, the only way to get it seems to be through rape, pillage, mutual insults and hapless confrontation.

That Friday night date is never going to happen. If it did, China, with Japan’s help, might establish a genuine East Asian community representing one-quarter of global gross domestic product. Two things both countries have talked about, an alternative to the “Washington consensus” representing an Asian path to rapid economic growth might become accepted wisdom. Together, it’s highly possible that they could present alternative models of global governance to help countries at the bottom of the economic ladder follow in their footsteps. Asian-style civil liberties might be less popular, but they could teach the world a thing or two about growth with equity.

So why is this so unlikely? One reason is that both countries have come close to superpower status while rejecting steps they need to take to be mainstays of the current world order. David Shambaugh, the political scientist and China expert, calls China “the partial power” in his recent book, China Goes Global (Oxford, 2013) but the same could be said of Japan both at the height of its economic ascent in the late 1980s, and today, when it uses economic decline as excuse for a multitude of nationalistic sins. Japan is still the world’s third-largest economy in nominal GDP terms, and yet its policies tend to be framed around economic revival at all costs, as though the March 2011 tsunami was a warning that it might soon sink into the Pacific Ocean.

There are big differences in the global ambitions of one and the insularity of the other, of course. China explicitly rejects subordination to global standards that were crafted in the post-World War II period by the United States. It wants to erect standards of its own. Japan accepted self-immolation of its foreign policy and defense as part of its post-defeat alliance with the US, but that alliance has given it the ability to take terrible risks in its relationships with the rest of Asia. The current policy of Abenomics has risked setting off a currency war with Asia’s export economies and created volatility in Asian bond markets at a time when the region least needs it. The Japanese government’s obtuse handling of its island dispute with China has risked setting off a shooting war that could drag an unwilling US into the fray.

China, meanwhile, possibly hitting a peak much as Japan did in the late 1980s, is insisting on superpower parity without the US without a remotely comparable contribution to global growth or global security. The reason is obvious – as long as the US sets the rules, China is reluctant to play the game.

Their views towards the US aside, what kind of process might lead to reconciliation or even a regional condominium of some kind? First, they would have to be very stern in restraining themselves from the abuse of nationalism in their dealings with each other. China would need to stop harping on bai nian guo chi, its hundred years of national humiliation, and its flip side, the overblown Chinese renaissance. Japan would need to abandon the deep-seated conviction that its only sin was defeat in the collapse of its short-lived and ill-run regional empire in China, Korea, Southeast Asia and the Pacific after 1945. Pragmatism should replace resentment and lead to a round of low bows, apologies and symbolic compensation for those long-ago disasters.

That something like this does not happen is as much the fault of the US as of China’s ambitions or Japanese stubbornness. Washington has come to take for granted its power over Tokyo, and needs its geographic platform for military projection in the Pacific – its vaunted “aircraft carrier”. Where China was once the main focus of US policies of strategic ambiguity, now it is Japan. In the island dispute, the US has tried to play both sides of the fence, warning China that the islands are part of Japan’s “administered territories” and hence fall under terms of the alliance, while cold-shouldering Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in his February trip to Washington to show its displeasure in its handling of the dispute.

Meanwhile, the US has moved into a posture increasingly reminiscent of the Cold War in its relations with China, lecturing it on cybercrime while revelations of US cyber snooping by former contractor Edward Snowden are still fresh. Chinese Premier Xi Jinping offered the US a relationship of parity during his June 7-9 meeting with President Barack Obama in Palm Springs. But neither the Snowden expose nor the body language of the leaders suggested that anything warmer than détente was on the table.

Asia has been at peace for so long that you have to be in your 40s to have more than hazy childhood recollections of the miseries of Vietnam, Pol Pot, and the brief Sino-Vietnamese war (travel to Sapa in the highlands of Vietnam and you will find that the border zone with China is still off-limits to the public).

So if there is a major source of instability in the region, what might that be? Look no further than the dispute between China and Japan over the islets called Diaoyus in Chinese and Senkakus by Japan. If Asia’s quiet time is ending, it will be because of three big powers with selective commitment to settling a tricky, minor, but highly consequential dispute. China, Japan and the US have all three become, in their own way, “partial” powers. The danger is not so much a shooting match, but the example these islands set of the inability of Asia’s three major powers to take risks for the greater good.

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