Tuesday, March 31

The dissolution of Sino-Japanese relations

Japanese travel poster for the Great Wall of China, 1937 © Bridgeman Images.

Ezra Vogels China and JapanIt is more than just the definitive book about the two great powers of Asia, whose relationship he describes as "tense, dangerous, deep and complicated". For Vogel, who has been one of the most outstanding scholars in East Asia for decades, it is largely the result of a life's work.

Vogel speaks and reads Chinese and Japanese and is well networked in high-ranking political and academic circles in both countries. This not only gives him a first-hand familiarity with the intensity of the feeling that often overwhelms efforts to bring Beijing-Tokyo political relations back to a balanced level. Vogel has long been trying to build a better understanding between the two nations.

Vogel has no claim to act as a bridge between two ancient cultures that have changed over time and in very different ways to largely prospering modern states. But he brings increased intimacy and deep knowledge to a topic that is rare in government and science.

It is an ambitious book that began in the 6th century when Japanese monks traveling to China transcribed Buddhist texts and brought them home to study. By 757, Vogel writes, the Japanese court had around 1,500 Chinese works.

Between 600 and 838, Japan had learned or borrowed a written language, Buddhism, Confucianism, literature, music, and architecture from China. Over time, language, religion, ethics and the wise in Japan have been adapted and domesticated. But the legacy remained anchored in Japanese life. Some skills that disappeared in China have been preserved in Japan. Japanese schoolchildren are already learning and reciting poems from the Tang Dynasty in their original characters.

The awe with which Japan once led Chinese culture and civilization gradually became a disappointment in the late 19th century and contempt in some circles. Japan's modernization of the Meiji restoration was an astonishing success. China failed by comparison, and the country underwent the same metamorphosis under Deng Xiaoping more than a century later, in the late 1970s.

The history of the two countries is, in many ways, the story of breaking up a once intimate and admiring relationship and the regular effort to at least restore, if not restore, it modus vivendi to enable them to live side by side peacefully, respectfully and profitably.

China under Xi Jinping and Japan under Shinzo Abe seem to be doing just that at the moment. Both leaders are nationalists who have a firm grip on the office and the levers of power. After the relationship hit rock bottom in 2012 due to a territorial dispute, Xi and Abe cleared their deep concerns against each other to gradually stabilize the relationship. Donald Trump also helped push them together, and both saw themselves as hiding places in the U.S. President-led trade storm.

It is therefore instructive to see how gloomy Vogel is until the end of the book on the future of the bilateral relationship. He has too long a perspective to allow himself to be lulled by the current phase of silence: "Given the depth of the historical passions involved, it is unrealistic," he writes, "that China and Japan will quickly develop feelings of trust and come close friends . & # 39;

I think Vogel is right, but I was a little surprised that he came to this position. Perhaps it is because the style of the book does not allow him to show his own views until he finally presents his conclusions.

In the meantime, Vogel is extremely fair in his reports on various eras. His narrative includes extraordinary and often brutal events, as well as seismic historical shifts in power from the wars that began in the late 19th century to episodes such as the Japanese invasion of China in the 1930s and the Nanjing massacre and its aftermath. Nevertheless, he manages to walk through history calmly and sometimes bloodlessly.

It is impossible to cover every basis in a book about centuries of complex events, and Vogel does not shy away from the difficult questions. But readers might have been better prepared for his grim conclusion if the book had more of a feel for the internal political drivers of both countries' mistrust. In addition to overheated nationalism, domestic politics has long played a striking and decisive role in diplomacy.

For example, the controversy surrounding the controversial Senkaku / Diaoyu Islands in 2012 was deliberately shaped by a prominent right-wing Japanese politician who was happy to affect relations with Beijing. Politician Shintaro Ishihara knew that Beijing had to react vigorously, which it did. The episode has disrupted the relationship for years.

Likewise, China's repeated demands for Japan to apologize for the war and its indifference and hostility when Tokyo has attempted to do so many times are anchored in internal Communist party politics. In China, it has been shown to be dangerous to be overly friendly to Japan. This has been reinforced since the 1990s through “patriotic education” campaigns and a diet of anti-Japanese films.

The current constructive bilateral relationship is only possible because Xi personally gave his diplomats the space they need for their work. Xi does not feel warm towards Japan, but unlike other recent Chinese leaders, Xi does not seem to have any particular personal feelings towards his neighbor.

During the country's imperialist phase, when Tokyo occupied Manchuria before invading China, some Japanese leaders had the prospect of realizing that their aggression would strike back over the centuries. Vogel quotes Ishibashi Dancing, a columnist and publisher and one of the book's many lively characters, who predicted that Japanese colonial policies in China and Korea would "anti-Japanese, despise the Japanese and hold eternal resentment against Japan" their populations. He was right.

More recently, Chinese arrogance towards Japan has done the opposite. As a result, the Japanese reject the Chinese. As long as the two countries and the peoples cannot break this cycle, the relationship will not change fundamentally.

Vogel's conclusion has profound geopolitical ramifications. Japan sits next to a potentially hostile China and has no desire to pull the United States out of the region. China could believe in an "Asia for Asians". Japan did it once, but not anymore.

China and Japan: facing history
Ezra F. Vogel
Harvard 512 pp £ 31.95

Richard McGregor was that Financial Times Office manager in Beijing and Shanghai and senior fellow at the Lowy Institute. He is the author of Asia is accounting: China, Japan and the fate of US power in the Pacific century (Allen Lane, 2017).

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