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Geo-political Causes of Sino-Japanese Tension
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By Feng Zhaokui

Problems in the Sino-Japanese relationship can be attributed to a number of factors in the global geo-political arena.

First, the strategic need to cope with the "Soviet threat," which was shared by Japan, the United States and China, no longer existed after the Soviet Union's disintegration and the collapse of the Soviet-US confrontational bi-polar framework in the early 1990s. It was this shared strategic interest that served to cement the political relations between China and Japan since the two countries' rapprochement in 1972, among other things.

On the other hand, the end of the Cold War brought changes to the Japanese political landscape. The "1955 mechanism," which had balanced conservative and liberal political forces for 38 years, collapsed in 1993. As a result, Japan's domestic politics and social mentality made a sharp conservative turn, which, in turn, robbed Japanese diplomacy of balancing mechanisms.

The United States, tolerating no challenge to its supremacy, was much haunted by the "Japan threat" in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But, with the Chinese economy growing rapidly, the "China threat" theory began to replace the "Japan threat."

In this scenario, the United States, often feeling overstretched in the face of complex world strategic situations, tries to use the economic and military resources of its allies. In the Asia-Pacific region, Japan, enjoying strong economic strength and an advantageous geographic position, becomes, therefore, increasingly important to the United States.

The United States, in order to make Japan share more in the US global strategy, deliberately galvanizes the latter's political and military ambitions. This undoubtedly appeals deeply to Japan, which is more than eager to become a "political big power." Hence, the US-Japanese alliance is moving towards military integration and its strategic goals tend to be of a global scope.

In the face of China's development, Japan doesn't like to see a powerful rival by its side, whose population and territories are far larger than its own. Worries about China becoming powerful have become an important factor making the US-Japanese alliance ever closer.

Japan, geographically closer to China than the United States, is more sensitive to China's fast development. At the same time, Japanese politicians on the right are trumpeting up the "China threat" in the hope of whipping up nationalist feelings among Japanese citizens who are noted for their sense of crisis. In doing so, this group of Japanese politicians also hopes to win support from more Japanese for the revision of Japan's current peace constitution, and for the country adopting hawkish foreign policies.

To make matters worse, issues left over by history alternate with the Japanese Government's current policies, leading to icy political ties between Japan and China. Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's repeated visits to the Yasukuni Shrine have led to Japan's face-off with China.

The United States harbors complex feelings towards the deterioration of Sino-Japanese relations. It is worried about a rising China and all the more so a rising China and an economically rising Japan getting closer to each other.

The best way to maintain US leadership in the Asia-Pacific region is to allow China and Japan to get at each other.

However, in the eyes of the United States, it does not follow that the worse Sino-Japanese relations become, the more benefits the United States will reap. A bottom line is drawn: Worsening of Sino-Japanese ties should stop short of harming US interests.

Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once said that the United States should see that US-Japan relations and US-China ties are better than China-Japan relations so that the United States is placed in the optimum strategic position. But at the same time, the United States should make sure that China-Japan relations are not bad enough to get out of control, which would force the United States to make a very difficult decision.

This mentality finds expression in the United States paying lip service to supporting Japan's UN Security Council membership bid and in its, together with China, opposition to voting on the UN Security Council reform bill, which failed to win consensus from all parties involved.

Because the Koizumi government attaches exclusive importance to its US diplomacy and adopts stiff and hard-stance foreign policies towards Japan's neighbors, the relations between Japan and China have entered the worst period since the normalization of diplomatic ties in 1972. Koizumi's insistence on visiting the Yasukuni Shrine, in particular, has led to the unprecedented worsening of the political ties between the two countries. It has become impossible for the two sides to co-operate on undertakings that should involve co-operation, and there has been friction on issues where friction should have been avoided.

Sino-Japanese relations are now at a crossroads. The Japanese authorities should realize that a way out should be found because allowing the continued sliding of Japan-China relations would only end up harming the development and stability of the two countries, or even the whole East Asian region.

It should be seen that the two countries have many common interests. Co-operation in the fields of trade, business and environmental protection, for example, has brought tremendous benefits to the two peoples. So, the win-win situation the two countries have enjoyed since the rapprochement in 1972 should not be allowed to slide into one in which there is no winner.

The author is a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

(China Daily February 24, 2006)


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