The Third Side of the Triangle: The China-Japan Dimension

By Horner, Charles | The National Interest, Winter 1996 | Go to article overview

The Third Side of the Triangle: The China-Japan Dimension


Horner, Charles, The National Interest


Of all the relationships in the world that do not directly involve the United States as one of the parties, the one between China and Japan is likely to have the greatest effect upon us in the first half of the twenty-first century. Indeed, it has already much influenced the depth and the range of our Pacific involvements. Important strategic decisions yet to be made will be based on assumptions about relations between these two, but those relations are not very well understood. If our grasp of intra-European relations has been seriously hampered by a propensity toward provincialism, imagine what awaits as we try to plumb the relationship between two countries that are culturally much more distant and foreign. Forced to rely on "Pekingology" or the competing models of "Japan, Inc.", we have trouble enough fathoming just one of these ancient and complex countries in isolation; divining what connects them and what they mean to one another takes us to a level of much greater difficulty.

Many will argue in favor of analyzing the China-Japan relationship as we would any other, employing the customary constructs of international relations and strategic analysis, and discovering perhaps that there is nothing very mysterious here after all. It is always a sensible injunction to Westerners in general to hold their fascination with "oriental stratagem" in check. We are also well-advised to remember that China and Japan are aware of the West's cult-like fascination with the Orient's ancient wisdom and may use it as a way of keeping us permanently uninformed - or misinformed - about their business. We should assume that there are those in Tokyo and Beijing who are occasionally bemused by our invocation of the pithy aphorisms of their ancient sages to explain what our interlocutors in China and Japan are "really" up to.

On the other hand, there are aspects of Sino-Japanese relations that should make the invocation of standard Western international relations theory equally suspect. There is nothing, for example, in our Western understanding of even so rudimentary a term as "bilateral relations" - nothing provided by the "models" we know best from the study of European history, like Britain-France or France-Germany - that adequately prepares us for the mixture of respect, disdain, emulation, and rivalry that has characterized the relationship between China and Japan for many centuries.

In the first place, it is hard for us really to grasp China's historic influence on Japan. We know something about it, of course: Chinese characters that form Japan's written language; Confucianism and Buddhism that shape Japan's political thought and religious sensibility; a grand cosmology that connects the natural and human worlds and places an emperor where the two intersect (though it is only in Japan that an emperor still reigns); the theory and practice of aesthetic and poetic that make representation in the arts mutually recognizable and intelligible. But these, for most of us, are only data. We are accustomed to think that only Western ideas have had, and will have, profoundly transforming societal effects. Yet in the centuries preceding the advent of Western intellectual influences in East Asia, it was Chinese thought that had unchallenged transforming power. The subsequent inroads of the West have been far from superficial, and we need not contest Japan's fundamental article of faith that both sets of influences work on something that is uniquely Japan's own. But for all that, nothing short of a thousand years of exposure could make Japan as Westernized as it has already been Sinicized.

Thus, when Western power began to establish itself in East Asia in the mid-nineteenth century, there was no obvious reason to anticipate that China and Japan would pursue seemingly different strategies in the face of a common danger. Our conventional rendering of each country's response to the West - that Japan "modernized" with a vengeance, whereas China dallied and resisted - emphasizes that difference, and one can trace much of the ensuing Sino-Japanese clash to these divergent responses. …

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