Nationalism Drives China, Japan Apart

By Robert Marquand writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, December 29, 2005 | Go to article overview

Nationalism Drives China, Japan Apart


Robert Marquand writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


The growing trade between Japan and China in 2005 has been matched by rising symbolic and verbal provocations and a steady decline in public opinion and diplomatic ties - marking a new nadir in relations between the most important competitors for Asia's future.

And the year is ending on a sour note. Last week, China formally declared a policy of "peaceful development" as it rises economically in Asia. But within 24 hours, Japan's new foreign minister, Taro Aso, warned that China's nuclear program and secretive military development "pose a considerable threat," the first time a Japanese foreign minister has made such a bald statement of concern.

"This could possibly be the worst period of Sino-Japanese relations since World War II," says James Mulvenon, Asia specialist at the Center for Intelligence Research and Analysis in Washington.

Few analysts predict violent conflict between Japan and China. Both nations are regarded as practical and pragmatic. Yet the negative dynamics of rising nationalism, fear, historical animosity - and China's rapid economic expansion in Asia - are at work with no mediating structures or nations. Diplomats and even some Chinese and Japanese officials say privately that Washington has yet to show it is paying much attention, apparently preoccupied with other priorities such as Iraq.

Relations between the historic Pacific rivals immediately plummeted at the start of this calendar year. Japan surprised China in February, on the first day of its biggest national holiday, Spring Festival, by saying it claimed formal control of the disputed Senkaku (or Diaoyu) islands in the oil-rich East China Sea. The year has now ended with rhetorical salvos, with Beijing describing the Japanese foreign minister's comments about China's military last week as "highly irresponsible."

Two days after Mr. Aso's warning, Tokyo announced it would jointly develop a naval SM-3 missile interceptor with the US, part of a "nuclear missile shield," for use on Japan's advanced Aegis- system destroyers that are expected to be launched in 2008. The US and Japan have been developing closer formal military ties since early this year.

In between the 2005 bookends has been a quiet, intense game of diplomatic snubs, protests, and cat-and-mouse maneuvers in the East China Sea over drilling rights and borders. China has systematically worked to keep Japan off the UN Security Council in proposed reforms of that body. This spring, carefully controlled Chinese "mobs" threw bottles and rocks at the Japanese Embassy here, and smashed up some Japanese businesses in brief rampages in Shanghai, frightening Japanese expatriates.

China blocks Japan's UN bid

After a Dec. 26 meeting with Japan on UN reform, China stated it would support greater participation by African countries in the UN rather than an expansion of the Security Council, and reiterated its concern that until Japan is properly repentant for its war-time past, China will block Japan's effort.

No plans now exist for leaders or even foreign ministers of the two most powerful states in Asia to meet. At the first "East Asian summit" this month in Kuala Lumpur, designed to enhance intra-Asian ties (and exclude the US), no "sideline" talks took place. Summit host Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi publicly stated, "We are concerned about the developing dichotomy in Japan-China relations ... one of the main pillars of East Asia cooperation."

Meanwhile, the general public opinion in both China and Japan about each other continues to slide, despite many instances of good business and professional working relationships. In fact, China is now Japan's No. 1 trade and export partner, replacing the US. But only 32 percent of Japanese have a friendly feeling toward China, a new government-sponsored poll shows. The figure has been dropping since 1995, when nearly 50 percent of Japanese said they felt positively toward their huge neighbor. …

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