The DPJ’s 2009 election victory had been expected to lead to a noticeable warming of Japan’s ties with China. After all, the DPJ came to power on a promise to balance Japan’s dependence on the US with closer ties with China. However, its bridge-building agenda foundered on growing Chinese assertiveness, leading successive DPJ governments to bolster Japan’s security ties with the US.
China’s behavior has fueled a nationalist backlash in Japan, helping to turn hawkish, marginal politicians like former Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara into important mainstream figures. Japan may be in economic decline, but it is rising politically. Indeed, Albert del Rosario, the foreign minister of the Philippines, which was under Japanese occupation during WWII, now strongly supports a rearmed Japan as a counterweight to China.
However, the resurgence of nationalism in Japan is only fanning Chinese nationalism, creating a vicious circle from which the two countries are finding it difficult to escape.
Former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe of the Liberal Democratic Party, who is likely to be elected as the next prime minister, has vowed to take a tougher line on the Diaoyutais and other disputes with China. More important, the LDP has called for revising Article 9 of Japan’s US-imposed post-1945 constitution, which renounces war.
The risks posed by increasing nationalism and militarism to regional peace have already been highlighted by the rise of a new Chinese dynasty of “princelings,” or sons of revolutionary heroes who have widespread contacts in the military. The real winner from the recent appointment of the conservative-dominated, seven-member Politburo Standing Committee is the PLA, whose rising clout has underpinned China’s increasingly assertive foreign policy.
In fact, what distinguishes Xi from China’s other civilian leaders is his strong relationship with the PLA.
As Xi rose through the Chinese Communist Party ranks, he forged close military ties as a reservist, assuming leadership of a provincial garrison and serving as a key aide to a defense minister. His wife, Peng Liyuan (彭麗媛), is also linked to the military, having served as a civilian member of the army’s musical troupe and carries an honorary rank of general.
Against this background, the central challenge for East Asia’s major economies — particularly Japan and South Korea — is to resolve the historical issues that are preventing them from charting a more stable and prosperous future. As a Russian proverb warns: “Forget the past and lose an eye; dwell on the past and lose both eyes.”
Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research, is the author of Asian Juggernaut and Water: Asia’s New Battleground.
Copyright: Project Syndicate