A difficult question requires an articulate response. Why is the territorial dispute between China and Japan over the Diaoyu (Chinese name), Senkaku (Japanese name), or even Tiaoyutai (Taiwanese name), Islands exploding now, and only now? Why are these two Asian giants digging up the hatchet over a tiny pile of rocks whose ownership has been a non-issue for at least the past 50 years? One thing is true: the islands are valuable, since they can control maritime routes and they extend territorial waters towards waters rich with fish and energy resources. But they have been for a long time, since at least the end of the war in the Pacific. Historians, geographers, and experts in maritime rights have been poring over nautical charts, signs of past settlements, and the genealogy of current docking facilities. Analysts, on the other hand, are evaluating political phenomena and today it seems that the quiet peace, that deaf turmoil that has given shape to the relationship between China and Japan has come to light in an escalation that is as uncontrollable as it is dangerous. The headlines are filled with news of maneuvering warships and patriotic rhetoric, overshadowing the economic news that used to dominate the scene; Japan is still China’s biggest exporter, and it is the third largest consumer of its goods. Thousands of Japanese companies have also delocalized to China, attracted by lower costs and the promise of an unlimited market. This of course has all happened without the erasure of the last war, which saw a brutal occupation of China by Japan and the massacre at Nanking in 1937. The answer to the original question, then, can only be found in the persistence of memories. History cannot be ignored when the forces approach each other on the field of battle. China is not as developed, but in 2010 the absolute value of its GDP reached a level higher than that of Japan for the first time. It was a vindication more symbolic than economic in nature, but it was a sign that China was beginning to catch up. That success was also due to the help of Japanese technology, something of an insincere solidarity between the two parties, possibly a misunderstood gesture of good conscience from Japan, but surely a beneficial result for both parties. Now that course has passed its first gate: it is not finished yet, but the gains can already be inferred.
Fully understanding the scenario requires a descent into complexity. It is easy to choose between right and wrong, less so when forced to do so when there are many “rights.” This is the framework within which Gabriele Menegatti, the Italian diplomat with the most experience in Asia, having been ambassador to Vietnam, India, Tokyo, and China, must move. Caution, he says, is the wisest choice, and not by coincidence is it the preferred route today. Both sides have much to lose: China risks stumbling in its ascension as a worldwide superpower, and Japan the prosperity that has been protected by the United States. The problem evidently does not rise from the territorial dispute, but from the identity of the two countries themselves, from the deeply rooted forces that moves their politics. When Beijing and Tokyo take a look in the mirror, they do not see themselves exactly as they are. The former rightly believes that after a bitter century of national humiliation – in which Japan played a major role – never again will it allow another country to damage its dignity, pride, or vital interests with impunity. The intervention of its volunteers in Korea and the wars with India and Vietnam bear witness to that. Another questions follows: how to prevent such past shows of force from creating apprehension in others? As Beijing takes a look at its country, it seems to not see that China today is the most populous country in the world, a nuclear power, second largest economy, and permanent member of the UN Security Council. All of this burdens today’s China with the principal responsibility for peace and security in Asia, the increased “gravitas” of the world’s historic superpowers. Japan, as it looks in the mirror, prides itself with the universally peaceful and responsible attitude that has been central to its presence on the international scene since the end of WWII. It can boast of having contributed to the growth of democratic regimes in various Asian nations, supporting the growth of a middle class, and of the full financial support it has given to the United Nations, despite its regret for having been heretofore excluded from the Security Council by vehement Chinese opposition. At the same time, Japan still does not understand that the accusations from China and other countries that it has not fully accounted for its history find an easy confirmation in the guilty historical revisionism set forth by certain members of its extreme political right. These voices, albeit isolated, should be sanctioned by Tokyo in the most definitive manner. It makes one want to say, tells Menegatti, “two wrongs don’t make a right. Free to confront one another, China and Japan could find themselves both prisoners of opposing nationalist forces, one already deeply rooted and another easily ignited if humiliated by the stronger party. The question inevitably involves the other global power, besides China, that is to say the United States. Far from having to live with one another, the two powers are destined, I would say obliged by their own interests, to contribute to peace and security in the Pacific. In this sense China is probably more concerned with the unpredictable North Korean situation than with its dispute with Japan over a few small islands. In any case, I can’t imagine a scenario ending in either a catastrophic conflict or the containment of China by the United States. China is not the USSR of the 1970’s, but the primary economic partner of every country in the region, including the US. In the Washington-Beijing-Tokyo triangle, the latter, tied to the US by the commitments of an alliance, stands the chance to become the territory upon which, in alternating phases, the Sino-American tensions are unloaded, a testbed for the power and determination of the leadership of the two, as Taiwan has been for decades. Except for the fact that Japan is much bigger than Taiwan, and I really don’t think it will allow the two Bigs to dance too many times on its back.”
It seems, therefore, that after Hiroshima, Washington needs to honor its debt to Tokyo. It secures its loyalty in exchange for defense. The approval of Abe, Japan’s new Prime Minister, is based much more on the sweeping economic maneuver that bears his name than on the confrontation with China. The Premier seems inclined to a line of thought that may be excessively simple, but linear: have 50 years of peace and collaboration (begun after the treaty of 1972 that officially ended the war) soothed China’s memory of the past? The answer is evidently “no,” and that leaves room for tensions with Beijing. Paradoxically, the fear is not of making an enemy of China, but of loosening the alliance with the US. This is clearly a nightmare for China, but even Beijing if facing dangerous scenarios. Where will it be led by its nationalism? Is its leadership really more realistic and moderate than its population, with respects to Japan? The rhetoric may have started a popular mechanism that can no longer be reigned in. When tensions rise, it is hard to go back to the negotiating table without hurting national and personal pride. Beijing therefore risks the opposite, mirrored situation: causing tensions to rise and forcing the United States to defend Japan, even as the effects of globalization raise China to the role of necessary counterpart for every major theme on the global agenda. It seems that each country is raising its voice in fear of losing everything it has gained in years of commitment and reconstruction. It is one of the oddities of the Pacific, where the two most important capitals, despite being only a two hour flight time apart, still need to involve Washington before they speak to one another, a dominus from the opposite side of the globe.