Thu, Jun 08, 2006 - Page 8 News List

China-Japan showdown is coming

By Sushil Seth

Japan is becoming an increasingly active partner in its security alliance with the US. There are moves to revise its pacifist Constitution. It has started to regard China as a major security threat, and does not buy Beijing's claim over Taiwan.

The two countries have sovereignty disputes in the East China Sea and over mineral resources. They have come close to naval skirmishes to uphold their respective claims. In other words, the relationship between China and Japan is disturbing.

Japan certainly has a terrible wartime record. And when it tries to be economical with the truth in this regard, it creates resentment and anger in China and South Korea and, to varying degrees, in other Asian countries subjected to Japanese invasion and occupation.

Compared with Japan, which appears distant and aloof, Beijing has adroitly played its diplomacy and trade to win over or neutralize countries in the region. Since the 1990s, Japan's economic image has been that of a laggard, just managing to float, even though it has continued to be the world's second-largest economy.

China, on the other hand, has been receiving rave reviews for its rapid economic growth and how it is likely to be the new engine of Asian, if not global growth. This perception of China as a rapidly rising star is creating a momentum of its own, making its skeptics an oddity.

At the same time, Japan's security alliance with the US is not a political plus with some Asian countries, because the US is perceived as an outsider. Japan, therefore, appears tainted while China is a home-grown Asian leader.

It is this halo around China which puts Japan at a terrible disadvantage in image-making. Beijing is squeezing every ounce it can from Japan's wartime guilt. Tokyo will always be found wanting in its contrition. Otherwise, China will lose the political and moral high ground which gives it a decisive advantage.

In other words, Beijing will never willingly subscribe to an equal regional power role for Japan. It would have to accept a secondary role in a region where China sees itself as the major power. Beijing might share that role with the US for the time being, but, being an "outsider" -- that is, not Asian -- the latter will increasingly be politically squeezed out.

If Tokyo will not accept the regional role scripted for it in Beijing, its choices are: first, to continue with its US alliance in an increasingly active role; and second, to create an autonomous political and military role, which might include acquiring nuclear weapons at some point. The latter is problematic, not only because it will create a terrible uproar in Asia because of Japan's wartime record, but because it could also jeopardize Japan's US alliance.

Japan is, therefore, unlikely to put itself in that situation. What it can do, though, is to acquire sufficient military power to make the exercise of China's coercive or actual military power costly for Beijing in any bilateral disputes where the US might not like to get involved.

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