Can China and Japan agree a peaceful balance of power without the US playing policeman?by Ian Buruma / December 11, 2014 / Leave a comment
Even though Shinzo Abe and Xi Jinping have shaken hands in Beijing, the tensions in east Asia are far from resolved. Ostensibly the rows between China and Japan, as well as Japan and South Korea, are about territory, the Diaoyu/Senkaku and the Tokto/Takeshima islands. These uninhabited rocks not only have some strategic importance, and potential oil reserves, but they are the symbols of supposedly unhealed historical wounds, inflicted by Japanese imperialism.
The Senkakus became an imperial possession after the Sino-Japanese War in 1895, along with Taiwan. Before that they didn’t officially belong to anyone, even though there are Chinese records of the islands dating back at least to the 15th century. After the United States returned the Ryukyu islands (Okinawa and smaller islands) to Japan in 1972, the Senkakus went with them. Sovereignty over the Tokto or Takeshima islands is an equally vexed matter. Japan claimed them after the Russo-Japanese War in 1905. South Korea believes they were always part of Korean territory.
The real reason for these disputes has more to do with the struggle for power in the region. China is busy reclaiming its ancient status as the dominant Middle Kingdom. Japan is trying hard to resist China’s rise and clings to its quasi-vassal status with the US for protection. And the Koreans are playing their ancient game of leaning this way or that, and where possible playing one great power off against another.
What we are often told, however, is that the problems in east Asia all stem from history, those unhealed wounds of war and occupation. Japan’s official ambivalence, or worse, about the history of sex slavery during the Second World War, and the continuing deference paid to the Yasukuni Shrine, where the souls of soldiers who died for the imperial cause—including a number of war criminals—are enshrined, are reasons for Korea’s President Park Geun-hye to refuse a meeting with Abe, and for the Chinese to accuse Japan of militarism.
But is history really the root cause of the current tensions? There is no question that the Japanese behaved…