February 14, 2014
At the annual Davos World Economic Forum, which convened last month, Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe disrupted the conviviality by offering an historical analogy that jarred his listeners. Abe likened the polemics and gunboat diplomacy (he did not characterize it thus) that China and Japan have been using against each other of late to the rivalry between Germany and Great Britain in the run-up to World War I. There was no doubt about which of the two nineteenth-century powers he considered the appropriate latter day stand-in for Britain, the liberal, constitutional polity that emerged victorious from the Great War. It was Japan, of course. China, in Abe’s rendition, represented Imperial Germany, the authoritarian, expansionist juggernaut that plunged Europe into the abyss and was defeated.

Recent scholarship on World War I, most recently Christopher Clark’s masterful account, has challenged the many Manichean interpretations of the war that assign all, or most, of the blame to Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany. But Abe was not delivering a paper at a convention of the American Historical Association. His aim was political: to sound the tocsin so as to draw attention to the displays of Chinese power in East Asia, above all Beijing’s peremptory proclamation of an Air Defense Identification Zone that intrudes into Japanese and South Korean airspace, but also to Beijing’s shows of force aimed at underpinning its claims to assorted island groupings in the East and South China Seas. In Abe’s mind, these actions amount to an ominous bellwether—not merely for Japan, but for East Asia more generally.

For its part, China hasn’t been reticent about using past events to serve its present interests. In a barrage of recent opinion pieces that followed Abe’s December 26 trip to the Yasukuni war memorial, Chinese diplomats spotlighted Japan’s sins of militarism and conquest during the 1930s and 1940s. And they contrasted Germany’s willingness to acknowledge the horrors that accompanied Hitler’s assault on Europe and to accept Germans’ responsibility to engage in an forthright and fulsome reckoning with the past with Japan’s evasion and obfuscation over its wartime conduct.

Consider, for example, the essay written for The Scotsman by Li Ruiyou, China’s consul general in Edinburgh. It opens by castigating Abe’s visit to Yasukuni, where “14 Class-A criminals among the 28 Japanese political and military leaders convicted in 1946 by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East” are buried and whose grounds contain a “war museum” that depicts Japan’s empire as the result of a righteous effort to rescue Asia from Western domination. The truth, according to Li, is that China alone lost millions of people in what in fact was a brutal Japanese campaign of conquest.

Li’s piece had this in common with Abe’s speech: it was not an exercise in historiography. Instead, it was crafted to make three broader points of contemporary relevance. The first was that Japan, unlike Germany, has refused to come to terms with its sordid past and continues to deny its sins. (In 1993 Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono admitted that Japanese forces had pressed women from South Korea and other Asian countries into sexual slavery, and Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama apologized two years later for Japanese aggression, but neither act has mollified China or South Korea in light of other Japanese leaders’ positions on such issues.)

Li’s second point was that Abe’s pilgrimage was not an affront to China alone but also to the other East Asian states that were victimized by Japanese militarism, especially Korea, which became a Chinese protectorate in 1905 and was colonized outright in 1910.

Li’s third contention was that because of Japan’s history of imperialism and conquest and the refusal to acknowledge it, Abe’s plans to revise of Japan’s defense policy pose a threat to the region. In the eyes of Li, his fellow Chinese diplomats, and China’s leaders, if there’s an accurate analog to German militarism, it’s Japan, not China, for China was on the receiving end of Japan’s aggression.

South Korea holds a special place in China’s efforts to rally support against Japan. Seoul’s condemnation of Japanese leaders visits to Yasukuni and their failure to admit Japan’s imperial misdeeds, such as the forced enlistment of Korean females as so-called “comfort women” during World War II, has been persistent and vociferous, and animosity toward Japan runs deep among South (and North) Koreans. It was at South Korean president Park Guen-hye’s behest that China built a memorial in Harbin to Ahn Jung-guen, the young Korean nationalist who, in October 1909, shot to death Prince Ito Hirobumi, the first “resident general” of occupied Korea and a four-time prime minister, at the railway station of this Chinese city. Koreans regard Park as a hero and a defender of national honor. The Chinese press has echoed this sentiment. While Japan denounced Beijing’s decision to devote a monument to a “terrorist,” the Chinese media praised Ahn as a “freedom fighter” and a “patriot” whose sacrifice (he was executed) should serve as a reminder of dangers of renewed Japanese militarism. While China and South Korea do have a common assessment of Japan’s wartime misdeeds, Beijing’s appeals to history are also motivated by the aim of averting the possibility that shared apprehension over China’s rising power and combativeness might eventually draw South Korea, a major economic and military power, and Japan together. Highlighting the threat posed by a resurgent Japan is a means to that end.

China and Japan are hardly the first countries to deploy history to put their opponents on the defensive and to depict themselves as victims or as paragons of reason and pure motives, and they won’t be the last. But what makes Beijing and Tokyo’s current reversion to this time-honored tactic is that it coincides with three developments that are altering the balance of power that has persisted in East Asia for over half a century.

The first is China’s post-1978 breakneck pace of economic growth and technological modernization have ended the weakness and vulnerability it has endured for 150 years, giving rise to a desire to regain the grandeur and power that marked much of its long history. China is projected to surpass the United States in economic output soon, displacing Washington from the position it has held for a generation. True, China will still trail the United States in per capita income and technological innovation for decades to come, but there’s no question that, barring an economic or political crisis that disrupts its trajectory, we are witnessing a power shift with global ramifications.

The second change is that while the United States will retain a military advantage over China for many years, the gap is narrowing. Chinese defense spending in 2012 was still less than a fifth of America’s ($129 billion versus $689 billion), but as China’s economy gets bigger and as more of the basic needs of its citizenry are met Beijing will have more money to allocate to its military, especially if it decides to increase the proportion of GDP that it devotes to defense, which currently is considerably less than America’s.Moreover, the capabilities and reach of China’s armed forces will expand as its technological modernization progresses. The United States will remain unrivalled in its capacity to project power worldwide for many years, but China’s growing wealth and military might will make it a tougher customer to deal with in East Asia, a region in which several countries (notably Japan and South Korea) have tied their security to America’s peerless power. No East Asian state has failed to notice that, in addition to its recent declaration of an expanded ADIZ, China has laid claim to most of the South China Sea, conducted air and naval patrols of the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands (administered by Japan, claimed by China), and played hardball with the Philippines over Scarborough Shoal—all with unprecedented assurance and scant regard for Washington’s reaction.

Third, despite the assurances—most recently the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia”—that emanate intermittently from Washington about the reliability of its commitments to protect friends and allies in the Asia-Pacific, the states in this region that have long relied on American protection are now more uncertain about value of America’s guarantee, explicit or implied, than at any time since World War II. That’s because they are keeping close watch on the two transformations I’ve just mentioned. None of these countries is about to give up on the United States—they lack the wherewithal to defend themselves independently—but all are concerned, to varying degrees, that the strategy that they have long relied on is being undermined by changes beyond their control. Summits with American leaders and calming declarations from Washington won’t quiet their anxiety. The facts are clear: China’s power is ascending, and America’s presence in Japan and Korea has been diminishing. Although isolationism is not an accurate description of Americans’ current mood, their weariness with wars and worries about festering economic and social problems at home are evident from opinion polls, as is their belief that the United States should do less abroad.

There’s plenty of hedging afoot in Asia as a result. A nascent alignment is underway between India and Japan. Cooperation between South Korea and India has begun on a range of issues, including security. There are even signs of a thaw in the Japan-Russia relationshipAbe, who has met Putin five times since becoming prime minister a little over a year ago, visited Moscow last April, the first official trip a Japanese prime minister in a decade, and went to Sochi this month to attend the Winter Olympics. Putin has scheduled a visit to Japan this fall, the first by a Russian president in eight years. Moscow and Tokyo are reportedly exploring solutions to their dispute over the Hoppo Ryodo/South Kuril Islands and trying to make headway toward signing a still-absent post-war peace treaty. They have also begun ministerial discussions covering regional security and even agreed to start joint naval exercises. Each of these developments in the region is influenced in part by the parties’ perceptions of China’s expanding power.

The uncertainty in East Asia stems from what in the theory of international relations is referred to a “power transition.” When there are seismic shifts in the distribution of power among major powers, ascendant states are tempted to take risks because of the confidence created by their increased strength and status. Leaders in the states that have hitherto been dominant feel compelled to demonstrate their country’s continuing superiority and relevance in order to counter critics at home and to reassure friends and deter adversaries abroad. Lesser powers are forced to rethink their strategies. The net result is the emergence of an environment hospitable to uncertainty and fear, the escalation of crises, misperceptions relating to adversaries’ intentions, strength, and resolve, and a preoccupation with safeguarding standing and prestige.

If this describes the situation in East Asia today, there are good reasons to be concerned about the polemics, appeals to historic grievances, and demonizing of current leaders in which Beijing and Tokyo are engaged. Leaders on both sides are mobilizing nationalism, invoking history in support of their territorial claims and the righteousness of their positions, and promoting pernicious stereotypes. They may hope that generating support at home will help them convince the adversary of their determination and resolve. What’s more likely is that the tit-for-tat trading of insults and accusations will increase the risk of overreaction during crisis and decrease the room for the compromises needed to contain them. Once leaders start campaigns to vilify a putative opponent, especially one with which there is a history of conflict, the harder it becomes for them to back down in a crisis without losing political capital at home. This is particularly true in the age of the Internet and social media, when citizens can, with unprecedented speed and in unprecedented numbers, get into the game of demonizing foreign antagonists and demanding that their leaders stand tall and not give ground. The nationalism that leaders fanned with the intention of using it as a resource can turn out to be a liability if, on the home front, compromise comes to be seen not as sagacity but as cowardice, even treachery.

Devotees of deterrence might retort that leaders, no matter their bravado, are attuned to strategic realities and won’t act recklessly if they anticipate that the costs will exceed the prospective gains. Fair enough; but the “if” is pivotal” here. Power transitions can produce an odd combination of hubris, bravado, fear, misperception, and a preoccupation with reputation, which inhibits clear thinking and increases the probability of erroneous judgment. East Asia may be particularly vulnerable to this pathology. The region lacks multilateral institutions within which diplomats can hammer out agreements that help restrain heated rhetoric, create procedures for preventing and managing crises, produce confidence-building measures, and enable third-party mediation.

None of this means that war between China and Japan is imminent: it isn’t. Still, leaders in both countries are increasing the odds of minor confrontations and reducing the maneuvering room that they will have to defuse them. Better that they end the freewheeling war of words and back-and-forth shows of strength. Beijing doubtless fears the emergence of a Japan that embarks on a substantial and sustained drive to increase its military power; but its muscle-flexing and anti-Japanese PR campaigns could well produce the dreaded denouement. Besides, the concern over China’s growing power assertiveness is not limited to Japan, or even to countries with which Beijing has disputes over maritime boundaries and islands.

Japan’s leaders have, if anything, a bigger challenge. Taking a lesson from Germany, they should encourage a truthful reckoning with the 1930s and 1940s instead of sticking to the default response, which has been to deny or diminish when it comes, say, the 1937-38 Nanking Massacre or the “comfort women” controversy. Tokyo must also take steps to ensure that school textbooks provide an honest account of the 1930s and 1940s rather than skipping, glossing over, or rationalizing uncomfortable truths. There is an extensive, variegated body of Japanese scholarship on hot button wartime subjects such as the Nanking Massacre. What has been lacking is a commitment by the government to engage in an honest inquiry into the past. To be fair, Japan’s leaders are hardly unique in denying and distorting controversial periods and episodes in their nation’s history; but given the strategic circumstances emerging in East Asia, that is a poor excuse for inaction.

What remains to be seen is whether Beijing and Tokyo will be able to take these steps, given that the vilification and the sanctimoniousness appear to have assumed lives of their own.

Rajan Menon is the Anne and Bernard Spitzer Professor of Political Science at the City College of New York/City University of New York, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and the author, most recently, of The End of Alliances (Oxford University Press, 2007).

RELATED CONTENT