Japan is tempting fate by joining the US-led anti-China coalition

Jul 30, 2021

War between China and the US is not inevitable. But it is becoming increasingly likely – and Japan’s actions could be the trigger. Japan and its US backers should not tempt fate.

The US and China are clearly on a collision course driven by competing ideologies and visions of the ‘international order’. Although compromise and co-existence are still possible, it seems that neither intends to do so. Indeed, the US is now applying ‘whole of government’ pressure on China – instituting sanctions because of what it perceives as its unfair economic practices, its theft of intellectual property, state-sponsored cyber hacking, its treatment of minorities in Xinjiang, its political crackdown in Hong Kong and its aggressive behaviour in the East China and South China Seas. Further raising the stakes, the US is also stepping up diplomatic and military relations with Taiwan – and Japan is following suit.

It appears that the US is acting on the assumption that the ‘die is cast.’ US President Joe Biden has publicly identified what he considers a long term existential threat to democracies. He says autocracies – like China and Russia – are betting that their systems will outcompete democracies in addressing the increasingly complex challenges of the 21st century. He has concluded that they think that democracies – with their cumbersome checks and balances – will not be able to function efficiently and effectively to meet these challenges – and that their systems can and will do so.

The US response is to contain and constrain China by building political and military coalitions of like-minded democracies – prominently including Japan. But including China’s WWII conqueror in this coalition – especially as a front line member – dramatically increases the chance of war. Indeed, it re-raises visceral angsts stemming from WWII.

In its assertiveness, it is already prodding China’s redlines – particularly regarding Taiwan. Japan’s State Minister for Defense has said, “We have to protect Taiwan as a democratic country”. This was not a gaffe or a ‘one off’. Japan’s Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso declared that a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would threaten Japan’s survival so Japan and the US must defend Taiwan together. Japan has even urged Australia to join in military exercises aimed at the ‘China Threat’ in the East China Sea. The latest public taunt was the broadcaster NHK’s use of “Taiwan” in Japanese to announce the entry of the Chinese Taipei delegation in the Olympics opening ceremony.

There are other arenas where Japan’s actions could trigger conflict – drawing in the US Chinese and Japanese coast guards and even their naval vessels and warplanes have increasingly come face to face in and over the petroleum-rich East China Sea where they have sovereignty and maritime jurisdictional disputes. The US has publicly declared it will back Japan if China tries to change the status quo by force. Making the situation more dangerous, in January, China passed a law that explicitly authorizes its coastguard to use force to assert Chinese sovereignty.

What Japan’s leaders – and maybe the US backers of its prominent role in the coalition – don’t seem to understand is the breadth and depth of Chinese bitterness regarding Japan’s treatment of the Chinese during its occupation of China and Southeast Asia.

I was attending an international conference in Japan in January 1989 when Hirohito – Japan’s wartime Emperor – died. I asked a senior Chinese official at the conference what he felt. He answered with a story. He had been a prisoner of the Japanese military in Manchuria. He and his fellow prisoners were forced to dig tunnels for Japan’s defences. But the tunnels would often collapse and prisoners would be killed by the cave-ins. There was a shortage of cooking oil in the prison camps. So the Japanese used the fat of the corpses for cooking oil. He gave me a long quizzical look – and then said simply – “and you ask me what I think of Hirohito’s death”.

This is not to reopen old wounds. It is to deliver the message that Japan’s actions are doing so.

True or not, such stories passed down by China’s wartime generation and its diaspora still inform the Chinese psyche. They believe that the Japanese military’s horrific behaviour was based on a sense of cultural superiority – that the Chinese are somehow less human than the Japanese. The visceral hatred this generates is being reawakened by Japan’s assertive behaviour regarding such sensitive issues. Be assured, China’s leaders and its people will do whatever it takes to prevent this history from repeating.

Japan and its US backers should not tempt fate.

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