A Dangerous Rift Between China and Japan

As the U.S. urges restraint, Asia's two great powers play politics with the past and court a crisis.

A dispute over a few tiny, uninhabited rocks could be more dangerous than anything happening in the Middle East.

Japanese demonstrators during a protest over the Senkaku islands on Sept. 22, 2012 in Tokyo.

When Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka visited Beijing in 1972 to restore Japan's relations with China, a country that had been devastated by Japanese military aggression in the 1930s and '40s, his host Mao Zedong allowed himself a moment of levity. Responding to Tanaka's apology for what Japan had done during the war, Mao answered that there was absolutely no need to apologize. After all, he said, without the Japanese invasion, the Communist revolution would never have succeeded.

Secure in his nationalist credentials, as the leader who unified China, Mao could afford this little joke, which also happened to be the truth. Such a remark would be unimaginable for any of the technocrats who rule China today. Maoism can no longer justify the Communist Party's monopoly on power, since few Chinese believe in any kind of Communism. Nationalism is now the dominant ideology, and the rulers have to prove their mettle, especially toward Japan. This need is particularly acute when a new leader takes power. The latest party boss, Xi Jinping, needs to show people, not least the military brass, that he is in charge.

Tangled Histories
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Which is why a petty dispute over a few uninhabited rocks in the East China Sea is causing a serious and possibly dangerous rift between the two major powers of East Asia. The Chinese have recently sent naval ships close to the islands, as well as military aircraft. Japan responded by scrambling F-15s. And the U.S., still the major military power in the region (though, if China has its way, not for very much longer), is urging the two parties to remain calm, while voicing its continuing support of Japanese administration over the territory. A conflict in East Asia could be much more dangerous than anything happening in the Middle East. Taiwan might be involved, as well as the Korean peninsula. Apart from the potential loss of life, it would be a huge threat to the world economy, and it would pit the U.S. directly against China.

The Japanese call the tiny island group the Senkaku, and the Chinese call it the Diaoyu. Fishermen have trawled the waters around there for centuries, and in 1968, a United Nations commission discovered potential oil and gas reserves there, too. But neither the fish, nor the possible access to oil, quite explain why emotions are running so high, why Japanese businesses have been boycotted and Japanese stores and factories torched, why Japanese tourists and businessmen have been molested, and why hotheads in both countries indulge in talk of war.

On the surface, the dispute is about history, about which country has the best historical claim to sovereignty over the Senkaku/Diaoyu. In fact, it is more about politics, domestic and international, revealing the tangled relations in a region where history is frequently manipulated for political ends.

The historical record of sovereignty over the islands is murky. First of all, there are different notions of what constitutes sovereignty. Traditionally, the Chinese Empire saw itself as the center of civilization. Its authority over peripheral countries, such as Korea, Vietnam or the Ryukyu Islands (including the main island of Okinawa, now Japanese), was not so much a question of borders and laws as of proper deference. The periphery was expected to pay tribute to the Chinese court, in the way of vassal states. Even Japan, more independent than other vassals, went along with this to some extent.

After the humiliation of China in the mid-19th-century Opium Wars, and the forceful entry of U.S. gunships into Japan at the same time, Japan began to take a very different view of the world. Mimicking the Western imperial powers, Japan decided to carve out an empire of its own, using brute force as well as Western legal concepts.

Sino-Japanese War: The Japanese Navy Victorious Off Takushan

China's humiliation at the hands of the British was deepened by the even greater humiliation of being defeated by Japan in a brutal little colonial war over Korea in 1895. This is how Japan acquired Formosa (now Taiwan), as well as other possessions in East Asia, including those Senkaku islands.

Contrary to popular belief, China and Japan were not always hostile to one another. For much of its history, Japan looked up to China as the center of civilization. And even after Japan's rise to the status of a modern empire at the turn of the 20th century, Japanese attitudes to China were complicated. Japanese nationalists were often sympathetic to Chinese revolutionaries who toppled the imperial system in 1911. Universities and military academies in Japan drew in many Chinese students in the 1910s and '20s. Before the Japanese invaded their country in the 1930s, many Chinese viewed Japan as a model of modernity.

The horror of the Japanese war in China, unleashed in its full fury in 1937, would change everything. Eight years of Japanese occupation, leaving more than 10 million Chinese dead, devastated the country. And memories of Japanese atrocities—biological warfare in Manchuria, the massacres and mass raping in Nanking, among other places—are still kept fresh in what's called "patriotic education."

This wasn't always so. Chairman Mao was more interested in consolidating the revolution, by some very bloody means of his own, than in dwelling on the recent past. The Nanking Massacre was never made into a big issue under Mao. Nanking was, in any case, Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist capital in 1937 and therefore of little interest to Communist propaganda. And the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, administered by the U.S., as part of Okinawa, and only given back to Japan in 1972, were barely ever mentioned.

It was only in the 1980s, after Deng Xiaoping opened China up to business with the capitalist world, very much including Japan, that memories of Japanese barbarism were deliberately stirred up. That is when a monumental museum was built in Nanking to remember the "300,000 dead" (almost certainly an exaggerated figure, which in no way mitigates the ghastliness of what the Japanese did).

Patriotism, based on grievances over a century of humiliations inflicted by foreign powers, from the Opium War to the Nanking Massacre, became the official ideology: Only the firm rule of the Communist Party would prevent China from suffering similar humiliations again. And besides, memories of foreign aggression are a convenient distraction from equally distressing recollections of what Chinese have suffered from their own rulers.

This, then, is what the dispute over those little rocks between Taiwan and Okinawa stands for in China today. It is a symbol of patriotism, without which the Party would have no legitimacy. Giving in to Japan would bring back memories of humiliation. Standing up for Chinese sovereignty is a test of China's revived status as the major power in the region.

And yet, even Deng Xiaoping had never made a fuss about this particular issue; he said in 1978 that the Diaoyu question should be shelved for the time being, as "our generation is not wise enough to find common language on this question. Our next generation will certainly be wiser. They will certainly find a solution acceptable to all."

Reasons why Deng's wish failed to come true are to be found not only in China, but in Japan, which has had to contend with its own history of humiliations, the worst of which was losing the war in 1945. The U.S. took over Okinawa and the other Ryukyu Islands, including Senkaku/Diaoyu. Japanese armed forces were disbanded. Americans lectured Japan on the evils of militarism and wrote a brand new Japanese constitution outlawing the use of military force in international affairs. Henceforth the U.S. would take care of Japanese security, in effect turning Japan into a vassal state again, this time of the U.S.

Most Japanese, devastated by war, were quite happy with this arrangement. Being the first constitutionally pacifist nation even gave them a warm glow of moral superiority. The only Japanese who fiercely opposed it were right-wing nationalists, who felt humiliated by Japan's renewed vassal status. Mainstream conservatives were content to concentrate on business and industry.

Japan's role as a kind of cat's paw of American dominance will be the source of ever greater tensions.

When Mao's Communists took over China, however, the U.S. changed its mind. Visiting Japan as Eisenhower's vice president in 1953, Richard Nixon called the pacifist constitution "a mistake." The Japanese were encouraged to rebuild their military, now called the Self-Defense Forces, and Japan would have to serve as a huge U.S. base for containing China, as well as other military ventures in Asia, such as the Korean and Vietnamese wars. And all this without revising the pacifist constitution to which most Japanese had grown attached.

The pacifist left in Japan, often sympathetic to Mao's China, felt betrayed. The U.S. was accused, not without reason, of reneging on its own pacifist lessons to Japan, by dragging the country back into conflicts with other Asian countries. Conservatives were split between the old nationalists who wanted to rewrite the constitution and become fully independent from the U.S., and the more business-minded elite, who opted to go along with anything Washington demanded.

Even when Japanese businessmen pressed for closer relations with China in 1970, the Japanese prime minister, Eisaku Sato, staved them off out of deference to the U.S. policy of containing China. No wonder that he felt deeply humiliated when President Nixon suddenly announced his new rapprochement with China in the following year without bothering to inform the Japanese. This, combined with the sudden devaluation of the dollar, is still known in Japanese history books as the "Nixon Shokku" (Nixon Shock).

One year after that, Okinawa was given back to Japan on condition that the U.S. retain its military bases there. This meant that the Senkaku/Diaoyu would be administered by the Japanese government. Also in 1972, Japan formally made peace with China.

Despite periodic spats with China over symbolic issues, such as the alleged rewriting of Japanese school textbooks, denying the Nanking Massacre, or visits by Japanese politicians to the Yasukuni shrine, where the souls of Japanese war dead, including World War II criminals, are commemorated, business between the two countries, now worth more than $300 billion a year, continued to grow. In fact, the more China relied on business with Japan, the more Chinese politicians felt the need to assert their nationalist credentials by bringing up the war. This kept nationalists in China at bay and the Japanese on their toes.

However, even more than half a century after Japan's wartime defeat, the problem of Japan's status remained unresolved. A great economic power, with huge economic interests in China, Japan was still a vassal state of the U.S. in matters of security. The inadequacy of this arrangement is increasingly felt, and not just among the old nationalist right wing. A continuing source of tension in Japanese foreign policy is the need to act like a major power while still being deferential to American interests. This dilemma has a huge impact on Japan's relations with China.

When the conservative Liberal Democratic Party government, which had governed Japan almost permanently since the war, was defeated in 2009, the new government, led by the Democratic Party of Japan, promised that a new, more open, more democratic, less bureaucratic era had began. One of the things that would have to change was Japan's dependency on the U.S. While stressing the importance of the U.S. alliance, Japan would forge closer relations with China, as well as other Asian nations, and shed some of the deeply unpopular U.S. military bases in Okinawa.

The U.S. government, long used to Japanese subservience, reacted as fathers do when children threaten to run out of their control, and quickly blocked these initiatives. So did Japanese bureaucrats, who had no intention of letting mere elected politicians diminish bureaucratic authority by taking initiatives of their own. China continued to see Japan as a pawn of U.S. imperialism. Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama's idea of building an "East Asian Community," loosely modeled after the European Union, went nowhere, as did his plan to move the U.S. base out of Okinawa. Mr. Hatoyama was seen as a failure; his plans for a vaunted new era had failed to lift off.

In 2012, the right-wing populist governor of Tokyo, a former novelist named Shintaro Ishihara, saw his chance to make a mark. Hoping to become prime minister, he decided to take the Senkaku/Diaoyu issue off the shelf to which Deng Xiaoping had consigned it. If the Japanese government wouldn't defend this vital piece of Japanese territory against Chinese provocation, he, Mr. Ishihara, would buy it for the city of Tokyo from its private owner. In a fit of panic, the Democratic Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda nationalized the islands, declaring that they belonged to the nation and there was no more room for compromise. His hope was that with Mr. Ishihara out of the way, China would be pacified.

He was wrong. China's rulers had to assert their nationalism. Words turned into gestures; army helicopters and fighter planes were dispatched. The government of the Democratic Party of Japan fell. The Liberal Democrats are back, led by Shinzo Abe, an old-school nationalist. His grandfather was Nobusuke Kishi, who was arrested in 1945 as a war criminal and later became a close ally of Richard Nixon in the struggle against Chinese communism. Mr. Abe is unlikely to change Japan's state of dependency on U.S. security, especially in the light of China's increasing military clout.

Things, in short, are back to square one: Pax Americana containing China, with Japan as Washington's loyal vassal. This might seem a stable, even comfortable, position from the U.S. point of view. In fact, it isn't. For a long time, the Chinese put up with the U.S. being the policeman of East Asia, because the prospect of a more independent, fully rearmed, even nuclear Japan would be worse. But Japan's role as a kind of cat's paw of American dominance, with Japanese nationalists compensating for their subservience by indulging in bellicose talk, will be the source of ever greater tensions, which are bad for everyone, including the U.S.

Eventually, a balance of power will have to be found between China and Japan, but that will mean a gradual withdrawal of U.S. might, which is precisely the opposite of what President Barack Obama's "pivot to Asia" is aiming to achieve. If prolonged for too long, arrangements made after World War II to create stability in the region will help to undermine it.

—Mr. Buruma is the Henry Luce professor of human rights and journalism at Bard College. His latest book, "Year Zero: A History of 1945," will be published by Penguin in September.

A version of this article appeared May 11, 2013, on page C1 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: China|Japan and the Abuse of History.


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