The future of Asia
Brothers in arms
Asia’s Reckoning: China, Japan and the Fate of US Power in the Pacific Century
By Richard McGregor
TO TWIST the old Anglo-American saw, China and Japan are two countries separated by a partly shared (written) language and culturally much else. Yet these two nations are among the great unreconciled of the 20th century’s warring parties. Worse, they are moving further apart.
China and Japan have been regional rivals for at least a millennium, but began to cross swords only in the late 19th century. Before then, they had shared art, writing, Confucianism and Buddhism but otherwise stood apart, albeit sometimes a tad sullenly, with most Japanese rulers refusing to pay tribute to Chinese emperors in the manner expected of other neighbours. But then from 1895 until 1945 they were repeatedly at war—constantly, in the official Chinese account—and it is the legacy of that half-century that sours relations today.
The funny thing, as Richard McGregor shows in this well-documented account of the post-war triangular relations between China, Japan and America, is that after 1945 there was initially little tension between the two. Mao Zedong’s China waived reparations claims and made no real fuss about territorial issues.
It was only in the 1980s that friction over interpretations of 20th-century history and Japan’s willingness or otherwise to apologise for it started to heat things up, reaching boiling point at various times during the succeeding decades. After the Communist Party’s scare over the Tiananmen protests in 1989, demonisation of Japan played a central role in Chinese nationalism, even as the claim that the Japanese might revert to their pre-war militarism has become less and less plausible. And hostility to China, along with revisionist views of history, have played growing roles in Japanese nationalism, too.
What to make of this? Are these, in the old Maoist phrase, just paper tigers or could they become real ones again? Mr McGregor is well placed to answer. He was born in Sydney and has worked as a journalist (for the Australian and the Financial Times) in both Tokyo and Beijing, and he speaks both languages. This gives him access to a range of archives and memoirs beyond the reach and nuanced comprehension of most other scholars.
His narrative of relations and contacts between the leading politicians and policy-makers in both countries, and of America’s interplay with the two, makes for a compelling and impressive read. One notable feature is how often the Americans, from Henry Kissinger to Barack Obama, seem to find their close Japanese allies more irritating and harder to understand than their Chinese counterparts, even as a rising China is coming to be seen as America’s greatest 21st-century challenger.
There is however a weakness with this narrative approach. Rather as television news often overlooks events and ideas if there is no video footage to go with them, so this very archive-led book tends to sacrifice analysis and the bigger picture.
A prime and very current example is North Korea. Between 1910 and 1945, the Korean peninsula was a Japanese colony. The Korean war of 1950-53 brought Chinese and American forces into combat, leading to a much hotter unreconciled set of relationships than the Sino-Japanese one. Yet tensions over and with both Koreas, and strategic concerns about the peninsula, get fewer mentions because they do not feature much in the archives of bilateral or trilateral relations. That is fair enough, but it makes this a history book, not a work of contemporary analysis.
If there is to be war in East Asia, North Korea’s latest nuclear test on September 3rd suggests it is more likely to break out in Korea than over the small set of rocky islets in the East China Sea that China and Japan use to niggle each other or over the commemoration of war criminals in the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. Moreover, if the Chinese were to do the logical thing to avert a nuclear exchange by invading North Korea or forcing regime change there, which would put the North under their own nuclear umbrella, this would do more to swing the strategic balance in the region away from America and Japan and towards China than any other act. That would be Asia’s truest “reckoning”.
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