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Far-East Update

The Kings of the East

by Dr. Steve Elwart


China and Japan are at a cusp where they may become more polarized in their ambitions, or they may realize that it is in their mutual interest to combine forces in the face of an increasingly fragmented world.

While all eyes are on the Middle East and their national economies, there are rumblings to the East that deserve our attention. On January 19, 2011, United States’ President Barack Obama and China’s President Hu Jintao issued a joint statement concluding the visit of the Chinese president to Washington.

The statement proclaimed the shared commitment to a “positive, cooperative, and comprehensive U.S. - China relationship.” Each party reassured the other regarding its principal concern, announcing:

The United States reiterated that it welcomes a strong, prosperous, and successful China that plays a greater role in the region.

Since then, both governments have worked towards those objectives. The two countries have exchanged visits and contacts between their two military organizations have been reestablished.

However, as cooperation has increased, so has controversy. The reopening of relations with China acknowledges the fact that the Middle Kingdom is a regional power with world power aspirations. The turmoil in the global economy and world financial system has conferred an added dimension to this attitude. Ten years ago, the idea that China might challenge America’s international supremacy seemed remote, largely theoretical. But as China assumed the role of the United States’ banker, Chinese emergence onto the larger world stage seems inevitable.

Many analysts that look at the world political and economic landscape have also come to the conclusion that China and the United States now seem destined for a global confrontation. However, before China can project power on a world stage, it must establish its dominance in the region.

The Island of China

A look at China on a map (below) will show that China is an island; an island not bounded completely by water.

China is a country roughly the size of the United States. It stretches for about 3,250 miles (5,250 km) from east to west and 3,400 miles (5,500 km) from north to south. Its land frontier however, is about 12,400 miles (20,000 km) in length and contains some very inhospitable border country isolating it from the rest of the world.

The country is bounded to the north by the massive and forbidding deserts of Central Asia; a problematic Russia northeast; the jungles of Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar (Burma), India, Bhutan, and Nepal to the south; and the impenetrable Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau to the west and southwest.

There is also a plain in this region with access to the Middle East through which the Silk Road, Genghis Khan and his hoards, passed but is of little strategic or commercial use today. However, it does provide a path to the Levant and Israel, which makes for some very interesting prophetic possibilities.

To the east and southeast lies its only practicable modern access to the rest of the world: 8,700 miles (14,000 km) of coastline along the Yellow Sea and the East China Sea to the east and the South China Sea to the southeast.

In addition to the 14 countries that border directly on it, China also faces South Korea and Japan, across the Yellow Sea, and the Philippines, which lie beyond the South China Sea. For China to acquire world power status, it first has to dominate these countries and the sea that lies between them. Lying squarely in its geographical and strategic path is Japan.

A Japanese Counterbalance

September 29 of last year marked the 40th anniversary of normalized diplomatic relations between China and Japan, two countries that spent much of the 20th century in a state of mutual hostility if not at outright war. The anniversary came at a low point between the two countries amid a dispute over an island chain in the East China Sea known as the Senkaku Islands in Japan and Diaoyu Islands in China.

These islands, which are little more than glorified rocks, are not particularly valuable on their own; their value lies in the oil reserves beneath them and in their value by some factions to whip up old animosities. Until recently, both countries agreed to ignore the issue of ownership of the islands, the so-called “elephant in the room,” and seek agreement in other areas.

However, Japan’s conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) came roaring back into power in elections last December, just three years after a devastating defeat, giving the LDP a chance to push a more hawkish security agenda. A LDP win will usher in a government committed to a tough stance in the territorial row with China.

The LDP win is also a culmination of the more right-wing stance the nation as a whole has assumed. For example, school children are not being told the whole story about Japan’s role in World War II as articles describing Japan’s pre-war militaristic nature are disappearing from textbooks.

This is particularly disconcerting to China, which has not forgotten the Rape of Nanking, where historians and witnesses have estimated that 250,000 to 300,000 Chinese civilians were massacred by Japanese troops when they captured the city.

A rise in Japanese militarism makes the Chinese nervous and they are pushing back. Beijing has undertaken a high-profile expansion of its regional navy to a world-class blue water navy as a way to help safeguard its maritime interests, which Japan—an island nation necessarily dependent on access to sea lanes—views as a threat.

Japan’s drift to the right along with China’s expanded military activity may awaken Japan from the pacifist slumber that has characterized it since the end of World War II.

Since the Japanese elections, Shinzo Abe, Japan’s Prime Minister in waiting, wasted no time in bringing the disputed islands back to the forefront by saying that there was no doubt about Japan’s ownership of the atolls. “China is challenging the fact that (the islands) are Japan’s inherent territory,” said Mr. Abe. “Our objective is to stop the challenge.”

A Time of Uncertainty

Japan’s reemergence from the “back bench” in world affairs could not come at a worse time for China. China is struggling with the new role of the military in its foreign relations and its 20-year swell in economic growth is reaching its logical demographic limit (it is said that China is a country that will “grow old before it grows rich.”)

Because China is still an export-based economy that lacks progress in switching to a more consumption-based economic system, Beijing still has a long way to go before it can raise the living standards of its own population.

This leaves China’s leaders facing rising social tensions with fewer new resources at their disposal. Japan, after twenty years of following a plan to preserve social stability at the cost of economic restructuring and upheaval, is now reaching the limits of its patience with a bureaucratic system that is best known for its inertia.

Both countries are seeing a rise in the acceptability of nationalism, both are envisioning an increasingly active role for their militaries, and both occupy the same strategic space. With Washington increasing its focus on the Asia-Pacific region, Beijing is worried that a resurgent Japan could assist the United States in containing China in a scene reminiscent of the two countries’ Cold War containment strategy. In the face of this potentially combustible mix, it appears that there will soon be another Asian power shift.

The Centroid of Power Moves West

Richard Nixon’s trip to China not only changed the Sino-U.S. relationship, it also led to the 1972 re-establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Japan. At that time, the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands were not even an issue since they were still under U.S. administration.

Japan also did not need to worry about its defense, since it fell under the U.S. defensive umbrella and Tokyo had long ago traded away its military rights for easy access to U.S. markets and U.S. protection. The shift in U.S.-China relations opened the way for the rapid development of China-Japan relations.

For the United States, its interest in the area has not changed since that time. The U.S. goal is to maintain a balance of power between Asia’s two key military powers (and the world’s 2nd and 3rd largest economies) so neither is able to challenge Washington’s own primacy in the Pacific. During World War II, this led the United States to lend support to China in its struggle against imperial Japan. The United States’ current role backing a Japanese military resurgence against China’s growing power falls along the same line.

As China and Japan redefine themselves, it is not hard to imagine China and Japan’s underlying geopolitical balance shifting again.

In their past, China and Japan shared a number of core cultural and political institutions but neither was prepared to recognize the other’s superiority; their solution was to curtail contact for centuries at a time.

Situated on an archipelago some one hundred miles off the Asian mainland at the closest crossing, Japan was able to enjoy a culture that was developed in isolation. Possessed of ethnic and linguistic homogeneity and thus a common national worldview, Japan nurtured an almost religious commitment to its unique identity.

Dealing With The West

In their contacts with Western Nations, Japan and China also had some shared experiences. Both countries encountered Western ships bearing unfamiliar technology and overwhelming force in the mid-nineteenth century—in Japan’s case, the 1853 landing of the American Commodore Matthew Perry’s “black ships”.

But Japan reacted to outside influences in a different way from China. While Japan embraced foreign technology and imitated Western institutions in an attempt to duplicate the power it saw coming from the West, China had it thrust on them at the point of a gun.

However, whatever path they took to reach the world stage, they are now both there counterbalancing each other.

China and Japan are at a cusp where they may become more polarized in their ambitions, or they may realize that it is in their mutual interest to combine forces in the face of an increasingly fragmented world.

If this were to happen, the power centroid would continue its historic journey from east to west with a decisive lurch from Washington to Beijing and Tokyo.

The last stop in the centroid’s journey is Jerusalem.


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