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Viewpoint: Gentlemen, Please

5 minute read
Bill Powell

My wife and I were in a department store last week not far from where we live in Shanghai, the red-hot center of China’s booming economy. And business, at least in one part of the store, was … really lousy. We were in the consumer electronics section, looking at flat-screen televisions, DVD players and sound systems, and in the areas selling Japanese branded goods—all those Sonys and Panasonics—we pretty much had the place to ourselves. Which is probably just as well, because if there had been any Chinese customers around to see what was on display in the Hitachi section, there might have been a riot. On its flat-screen TV—made, mind you, in southern China—Hitachi was playing a promotional DVD featuring lush, colorful images of all things Japanese. There were women in beautiful silk kimonos; images of finely wrought porcelain pottery; a demonstration of the tea ceremony. My wife and I looked at each other in disbelief. Had she not been there to see what I saw, I would have thought, in this addled anti-Japanese environment, that I was having some sort of dream.

In truth, the spectacularly ill-chosen video was more like a metaphor for how blazingly dumb both the Japanese and Chinese governments have been as their relations continue to deteriorate. In the coming days, both sides may move to arrest the downward spiral. There’s talk of joint oil and gas drilling in disputed areas off the coast of China, and maybe even a summit between Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Chinese President Hu Jintao. But in the meantime, it would help if both countries asked themselves a few honest questions.

For example: Prime Minister Koizumi, having visited the Yasukuni Shrine four years in a row, do you gain anything by going again this year, in this environment? It is true that the Chinese government, which can’t stand any outsider messing in China’s internal affairs, is deeply hypocritical when it immerses itself in Japan’s domestic politics. But this is the 21st century, and on some issues all politics isn’t local, as the old American saying goes; it’s global. Japan certainly has a right to honor its war dead, but China has every right to be very upset, Prime Minister, if you do it at Yasukuni. Surely there is another appropriate venue? The calculation is simple: you can either anger the relatively small far-right wing in your party or you can further infuriate the 1.3 billion people who are—and always will be—your neighbors, who represent your biggest trading partner now, and whose importance in the economic life of Japan is only going to grow. I’m not a politician, but this choice—conservatives in Japan vs. 1.3 billion Chinese—seems like a no-brainer. Seriously, you don’t really intend to go to Yasukuni this year, do you?

But the Chinese leadership would be wise to ponder a few questions, too. It was arguably winning the propaganda battle with Japan, but then China’s Premier Wen Jiabao had to assert piously in India that a country that can’t confront its own history forthrightly doesn’t deserve to be on the U.N. Security Council.

Uh oh. Did you really mean that, Premier Wen? Because if you did, scholars have a fairly long list of questions for you, too. For example: how, exactly, does China handle the touchy issue of Tibet in its textbooks? How about the 1979 war with Vietnam, waged to teach Hanoi a lesson because it ousted China’s old friend, the genocidal Pol Pot, from power in Cambodia? And does China seriously intend to block Japan’s Security Council membership bid? It’s not clear that would win China many friends. Most Japanese view their country as having been a model global citizen since the end of World War II, and they have a point. Not a single Japanese soldier has fired a shot in anger in 60 years. Japan is the second largest contributor to the U.N. Its aid to developing nations—China included—has been massive. It is also—ahem—a democracy. No wonder that U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan thinks highly of Japan. If China blocks the U.N. bid, Japan is guaranteed to retaliate in some way, most likely in the economic realm. A trade war would be irrational; it would, of course, hurt Japan. But it would hurt China too. Premier Wen, is that really what you want?

The irony in all this is that the contours of a deal between the two countries are pretty obvious. Koizumi makes a direct, contrite-sounding statement of Japanese war guilt (much as Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama did in 1995) and says he won’t go to Yasukuni. China agrees not to use its veto to keep Japan off the Security Council. But if I hear the two governments talking along these lines anytime soon, I’m going to make sure my wife is hearing the same thing. Otherwise I know I’ll be dreaming.

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