Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Asia Needs an Honest Broker

The open rivalry and discord between Asia’s two giants, China and Japan, grows nastier and more worrisome by the day. As I mentioned in my 2005 round-up, the year ended on a sour note, as Japan’s Foreign Minister Taro Aso warned that China’s nuclear program and secretive military development posed a considerable threat. It was he first time a Japanese foreign minister had made such a bald statement.

Since the beginning of the new year, things have gotten even testier. The Japanese press is in a tizzy about the suicide of a Japanese diplomat in Shanghai, who reputedly killed himself after being blackmailed to spy for China. Yesterday, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi blasted China and Couth Korea for “interfering” in Japan’s internal affairs – a reference to criticism of his visits to the Yasukuni Shrine.

Meanwhile, a Chinese newspaper affiliated with the official People’s Daily published an editorial by one Lin Zhibo, deputy director of commentary and a well-known hawk, arguing that China should prepare for on-going conflict with Japan. The main issue is, Lin wrote, “that China is rising and Japan does not want to see China rise. This conflict is long-term and cannot be altered [alone] by the will of the Chinese people.

Lin’s comments were a little peculiar since he went on to say that, “nationalism may be the only belief [emphais added] that can maintain China’s unity and stability.” It is not unusual for outsiders to remark that nationalism has replaced communism as China’s national glue, but it is a little strange to hear it from an official, presumably a paid-up member of the Chinese Communist Party.

What Asia needs is an “honest broker,” some outside entity that is trusted by both sides, someone that can intervene to stop the slide, someone like the United States. Is it time for President George W. Bush to play Theodore Roosevelt’s part when he brokered the end of the Russo-Japanese War, in the little town of Portsmouth, N.H. exactly 100 years ago?

Of course, China and Japan are not exactly shooting at each other, and being fundamentally practical, they probably won’t. Nevertheless, their emerging cold war is becoming a factor in the peace and prosperity of Asia. Yet, there is little evidence that Washington is paying the slightest attention to the growing blood feud. Nor has it done much, if anything, to try to warm relations before they grow even chillier.

But can the U.S. be seen as an honest broker?
It is true that Washington is on good terms with both China and Japan. President George W. Bush meets as often with his Chinese counterpart as he does with Koizumi, perhaps more often. Yet it is doubtful that Beijing would trust Washington to be an impartial arbitrator. Washington’s ties to Japan, formal and informal, go back a long way. Relations with China, antagonistic for at least two decades, are newer and weaker.

It’s not that Washington invariably takes Japan’s side on international issues. Last year it pretty effectively stiff-armed Tokyo’s plan to gain a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, probably to reward Beijing for help in the Korean nuclear talks. But this must be offset with moves, viewed with deep suspicion in Beijing, to strengthen its military alliance with Japan and draw it closer to any defense of Taiwan.

Does the U.S. want to be an honest broker?
It is fair to ask whether Washington even wants to be an honest broker. President Bush could end Koizumi’s regular visits to the Yasukuni shrine with one telephone call. Or, suppose Bush snubbed Koizumi at an international event as Premier Wen Jiabao did at the recent East Asia Summit? I suspect the visits would end pretty fast. Yet he says nothing.

Americans think that the Yasukuni brouhaha is some strange obsession among Chinese and Koreans that has nothing to do with the U.S., as if the U.S wasn’t even a party to World War II. Yet the shrine’s museum tells visitors (in Japanese, of course) that the attack on Pearl Harbor was a heroic act of self defense “forced” on Japan by the Americans. This proposition is tacitly and regularly endorsed by America’s great ally and bosom buddy, Koizumi.

If Washington were to add its voice to protested the shrine visits, it might help arrest South Korea’s steady drift into China’s embrace. Indeed, there are so many good reasons for Washington to protest the visits, that one has to believe that Washington tacitly endorses them in order to draw Japan closer into the military integration with the U.S. on a global scale.

The U.S. can do nothing to end the rivalry
There may be a third possibility. The antagonism between the two powers is basically framed in a deep-seated Asian thing barely comprehensible to Westerners. China and Japan are jockeying to see who will be “Big Brother” and who will be “Little Brother” in the New Confucian World order, and there is nothing much outsiders can do about it


Blogger Patrick Tan said...

The USA can never be an honest broker anywhere. Every country acts in its self interests, and the warhawks apparently think that using Japan to contain China is a splendid idea. Your third option seems most likely.

May 9, 2006 at 8:23 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home