Battle hymn: a military choir in Beijing celebrates 70 years since victory over Japan. Photo: Greg Baker/Getty Images, Jan Versweyveld

We ignore China and Japan's toxic rivalry at our peril

According to two new books, a crunch point could come soon. Neither gives much cheer to western complacency
August 16, 2017
Asia's reckoning: China, Japan, the US and the Struggle for Global Power by Richard McGregor (Allen Lane, £20)

The End of the Asian Century: War Stagnation, and the Risks to the World's Most Dynamic Region by Michael R Auslin (Yale, £20) 

If you want to see a great disappearing trick, just try looking for Asia coverage in a major American or British newspaper. A region that is home to half of the world’s population, a quarter of its economic power, and has the potential to blow up into several conflicts generally disappears into the odd story on page 18. In July, Sun Zhengcai, the party secretary of the Chinese mega-city Chongqing, was abruptly fired by Xi Jinping, the country’s president. This was an event easily equivalent to James Comey’s sudden departure as FBI Director. I don’t remember it getting much attention in the UK.

One of the reasons for Pacific Asia’s absence from the news is that word “potential.” During the Cold War, there were major wars in Korea, Vietnam and between India and Pakistan. In the past three decades, the region has been remarkably peaceable, with steady economic integration, a deepening security architecture, and—so far—three or four major powers who have managed, uneasily, to avoid conflict and tame the more exuberant members of the community. While the Middle East burns, Russia subverts elections and there is terror on the streets of Europe, “Beijing and Tokyo nearly clash offshore but step back after some growling” doesn’t really cut it as a news hook.

But we may not have a choice. In 2017, the number of flashpoints in the region is growing. There is nothing “potential” about North Korea’s nuclear capacity, the installation of Chinese military runways in the South China Sea, or the continuing friction between Japanese and Chinese vessels off disputed islands in the East China Sea. And the election of Donald Trump, whose view of geopolitics is fundamentally different from any president of the United States since the Second World War, is not so much a “black swan” as a grey geopolitical pigeon relieving itself from a great height on a highly sensitive region.

In this context, two new books by Richard McGregor and Michael Auslin are a timely reminder that not just Asia’s stability, but that of the wider world, is dependent on the Indo-Pacific zone (the region comprising the tropical waters of the Indian Ocean, the western and central Pacific Ocean, and the seas connecting the two) staying calm. Both titles imply foreboding: McGregor’s Asia’s Reckoning implies a crunch point soon, and Auslin’s declaration of The End of the Asian Century hints at the eventual destination. Neither gives much cheer to western complacency.

McGregor is the former Beijing bureau chief for the Financial Times, an experience which gave him the material for The Party (2011), a highly-regarded account of Chinese politics under president Hu Jintao (2002-12). In his new book, McGregor reveals a clear shift towards an ever-more toxic relationship between East Asia’s two major powers. In the early 1980s, China’s relationship with Japan was relatively low-key, but as the decade went on the relationship became much more fraught and the legacy of the savage 1937-45 war increased tension. From the mid-1980s, China began to stress the legacy of Japanese war crimes in China, building a museum in Nanjing at the site of the notorious sacking of the city in 1937, as well as sponsoring ever-more lurid movies and television shows about the war. (McGregor cites one drama, criticised even by China’s nationalistic censors, where the Chinese heroine conceals a hand grenade in her vagina). In turn, Japan’s politicians had to take account of China’s newly-expressed anger over the war years. Politicians in Tokyo gave a string of apologies for Japan’s wartime behaviour, which tried to square an impossible circle by signalling sincere remorse, while avoiding a backlash from Japan’s ultra-nationalist right wing.
"Senior Chinese officials complain that Japan has never genuinely apologised for its war crimes, despite repeated statements of sorrow"
Fans of blow-by-blow accounts of insider politics such as John Heilemann and Mark Halperin’s Double Down (on the 2012 Obama campaign), or Tim Shipman’s All Out War (on the Brexit campaign), will enjoy McGregor’s deeply-sourced and pacy account of the Hu era. He has had access to a whole range of actors in Washington, Tokyo and Beijing, who have offered him inside stories on negotiations, presumably on condition of confidentiality (bad things happen to people in Beijing who leak “state secrets”). We encounter the daughter of a former Japanese prime minister snappily summing up the three main contenders for the top job in Tokyo in 2001 as “Bonjin, gunjin, henjin” (“bland man, military man, strange man”), the last being the luxuriously-coiffed Junichiro Koizumi. Koizumi duly became premier and precipitated a worsening of Sino-Japanese relations as he visited the notorious Yasukuni shrine where the spirits of Japanese wartime leaders are honoured. We also meet Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi, “red-faced and angry,” storming out of an Asean conference in Hanoi in 2010 after successive speakers had criticised Beijing’s policies in the region, only to come back to declare to his fellow ministers: “China is a big country, and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.”

The individual portraits illustrate a wider, dispiriting narrative. China and Japan’s politicians and media have settled into two familiar, but misleading, grooves. On three separate occasions this year, senior Chinese officials told me that Japan has never genuinely apologised for its war crimes, despite repeated and very clear statements of sorrow from prime ministers—most notably Hosokawa Morihiro in 1993. In Japan, the conservative right claims that China has found that a grudge against Japan is more useful geopolitically than any genuine resolution of their problems. However, this explanation sits badly with phenomena such as the Yushukan museum at the Yasukuni Shrine, privately funded but prominently located in central Tokyo. I visited it earlier this year and was taken aback to find that it claimed a key cause of the Sino-Japanese war was not Japanese imperialism but “Communist terrorism.” In the end, the politics of failed reconciliation between the two sides are shaped by domestic politics that make it very hard for each side to understand the other. As China and Japan increase their defence budgets, this could portend greater tensions ahead.

Those tensions wouldn’t surprise Michael Auslin, whose book is cheerfully subtitled “War, Stagnation, and the Risks to the World’s Most Dynamic Region.” Auslin is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in Washington DC, whose respected scholarship often draws on his fluent Japanese. While the AEI is a Republican think tank, Auslin’s analysis falls within the (currently exiled) mainstream foreign policy traditions of, say, former Secretary of State James Baker, rather than that of the neo-con John Bolton right. His title is provocative, seeking to highlight the fragility of the region not just in terms of military confrontation, but a form of “secular stagnation,” a long-term slowdown in economic growth as opposed to temporary downturns, as in the Asian financial crisis of 1998.
"America is the most important external actor in Asia's destiny—but under Trump the country is sending confusing signals"
China is the major worry here. The prospect of a major slowdown in China is real, particularly if there is a concerted move to deal with the country’s considerable debt burden in the next few years, which might make the economy more efficient in the medium term but lead to some internal turbulence further ahead. Less dramatic, but in the longer term perhaps more important, is the changing economic structure of the wider region: as Auslin writes, “Neither Asians nor the rest of the world have asked how they will adjust to an Asia of predominantly mature economies, where no one is growing at 10, or even 7 per cent a year.”

For decades, the idea has been abroad (not least in some Brexit circles) that a dynamic Indo-Pacific provides an untapped source of new economic growth for the rest of the world. That may have been true into the 2000s; but as Japan and South Korea continue to stagnate, it’s not self-evident that it will be true in future. A serious economic slowdown could mean a wave of protectionism within Asia, which could then stimulate expanding regional militaries.

And all this is without the prospect of a nuclear North Korea. Auslin is bleak but realistic when he suggests that there can be “no hope of denuclearisation as long as the Kim regime survives, and the longer that it does, the more the chance of armed conflict increases.” There is little option now but to acknowledge, even unofficially, that Pyongyang has a nuclear capacity, and rethink regional order around that reality.

Auslin’s thoughtful and deeply-researched analysis proposes various futures for Asian regional order. He argues for the strengthening of a strategic triangle of India, Japan and Australia as countries that broadly share liberal economic and cultural values. “Most important,” he argues, security risk in Asia will be lowered if a set of liberal actors in the region work out “as an integrated community,” how to handle their neighbourhood. However, the problem with this argument emerges in another of his observations: “For reasons of history, economics, and security, America is the most important external actor in Asia’s destiny.” The book, substantively written before Trump’s election, assumes a US world-view that has been eclipsed.

Trump is not the first president to support authoritarian leaders in the region: Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon all supported the likes of Ferdinand Marcos and Park Chung-hee. But none, unlike Trump, has implied that authoritarianism is preferable to liberal government. All other postwar presidents have recognised that economics and security go together. Trump’s decision to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership was a blow to the US’s allies, notably Japan, and a boost for China, which has proposed the One Belt One Road (“New Silk Road”) and a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) as alternatives to US dominance. Auslin’s advocacy of a new alliance with India is harder in a world where the US is not a reliable ally. Governments in New Delhi have never been enthusiastic about major engagement outside South Asia; it would need a president with a great deal more commitment to multilateralism, as well as charm and the ability to persuade, to bring India into the triangle.

In the end, there may be an answer to the questions that both McGregor and Auslin pose, but an answer unwelcome to the west: Chinese strength and even dominance in the region, both economic and military, may become the default position. US military power still dwarfs that of China, and its economic and persuasive power are also greater, for the moment. But intention, and attention, are important too, and the US is currently sending confusing signals. These two excellent books are reminders that if we in the west do not pay due attention to Asia while it’s on page 18, its contradictions may suddenly emerge to blindside us on the front page, when it is far too late to plan or react.