Bloomberg Businessweek just published a piece that will undoubtedly be the toast of the Central Party School in Beijing. Entitled “Japan’s Politicians Anger China Afresh,” by Asia regional editor Bruce Einhorn, it is a classic exercise in how to subordinate one’s national interest for fear of offending Peking. In Einhorn’s view, apparently, conservatives everywhere are of a capitalist running-dog stripe, lemmings who instinctively “provoke” China during election season, so he kicks off by knocking Mitt Romney. Then he hits his stride, dutifully labeling former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, who is likely to become premier again next month, as a “China-basher” for, quelle horreur, meeting the Dalai Lama in Tokyo and being “willing to risk China’s ire” by visiting the controversial Yasukuni Shrine (dedicated to Japan’s World War II dead). In Einhorn’s world, it seems, one’s moral beliefs and political actions should be decided on a WWMD (What Would Mao Do) basis.
Yet liberal wisdom can be found even when it is well-hidden, so Einhorn then praises Barack Obama for having had the courage to shuffle the Dalai Lama in and out through the White House servants’ entrance for a no-press, non-Oval Office meeting in 2011. The height of diplomatic sophistication, in his view, was the follow-on to this dismissive treatment of the Dalai Lama, when the “White House made a point of reassuring China that the U.S. wasn’t interested in fighting about Tibet.” Well, sure, why “fight” about tangential things like human rights and repression in Tibet, when Peking is being so supportive on other crucial issues such as Iran, North Korea, Sudan, disputed territories in the East and South China Sea, etc.? Oh, wait, it appears that giving the Dalai Lama a tray of drinks to serve in the Map Room in order to lull Chinese suspicions that he was there for anything other than to fill a last-minute waiter shortage didn’t quite get Hu Jintao to see things our way.
Returning to his theme, Einhorn quotes without comment Chinese state media’s denunciation of the Dalai Lama for using the Japanese term for the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea (the islands at the heart of the latest Sino-Japanese conflict), thereby masterfully mashing together Tibetan “separatist” views and Japan’s intention to maintain control over its territory, as though it were a giant plot by scheming Tokyo warlords.
Yet he is even more flummoxed by those pesky Japanese politicians “from both the ruling party and the opposition,” who inscrutably “seem to feel there’s little reason to defer to Chinese feelings.” But of course to “defer” to China is clearly the way to world peace and to show how mature one’s foreign policy is. It’s a good thing Einhorn didn’t write his panegyric to Peking’s peaceful policies after Abe caused fears of World War III by stating recently that he would strengthen Japan’s military. I mean, forget that Japan flies 40-year old fighters, has no bomber force, no missile force, and only 18 submarines to China’s 70, as well as fielding a total military strength of 240,000 versus China’s roughly 2.3 million. They certainly have no reason to worry about a growing and assertive neighbor with a population ten times their size, which abets massive demonstrations against their country, and sends dozens of fishing and maritime patrol boats into their claimed waters.
Einhorn stops short of calling Abe a war-monger, though he doesn’t quite explain why Abe’s (along with 100 Japanese Diet members) meeting with the Dalai Lama is a “more serious matter” for China than run-of-the mill Tibetan protests, including self-immolation. Yet he conveniently omits (one assumes he knows) that Abe’s first overseas visit as premier in 2006 was to . . . China. Perhaps there is some subtlety to Japan’s likely next leader, or at least a recognition that one’s own country’s interests come first, not China’s. Perhaps there is even the tiniest of chances that if Abe sends strong-enough signals that Japan intends to protect its interests and be powerful enough not to be intimidated that Peking will understand the wisdom of not pushing things too far. In a crazy, cats-and-dogs-living-together world, that could even lead to more stable relations between the two.
China may not be the world’s biggest bogeyman. It may not have a grand plan to become Asia’s hegemon or the most powerful country in the world. In fact, as I wrote recently in another context, we would be wise to pay attention to its growing weaknesses and the brittleness of its system. Yet it nonetheless is consistently probing the resolve of other states, from Vietnam to Japan and America. The stronger it gets relative to its neighbors, and the more it senses weakness or lack of resolve in Washington, the more assertive it becomes. Washing all our foreign policy through a Chinese filter, as Einhorn seems to advocate, will only embolden Chinese hardliners, and quite possibly lead to tragic miscalculation.
For their part, Japan’s leaders regularly make their share of stupid mistakes. Visiting Yasukuni Shrine may well be one of them. They refuse to pull their weight in global peacekeeping activities, and continue to hamstring themselves from participating in collective security operations, while cutting their defense budget. Their inability to forge working relations of trust with neighbors such as South Korea is due equally to domestic resistance over acknowledging Japan’s imperial atrocities as it is to calculating political machinations by other countries. Yet only from the safe perch of BloombergBusinessweek’s Hong Kong bureau is adhering to Chinese foreign-policy goals seen as the epitome of statecraft.