It had emerged as Asia’s leading power following a burst of modernization abetted by Western technology. Political reform was squashed as conservative civilians joined forces with military generals to form a dictatorship that battened on nationalist fervor aimed at foreign adversaries. Militaristic army and navy officers drove an expansionist foreign policy that carved out an ever-larger sphere of influence for the rising power. Its industrial production and voracious appetite for natural resources created a new regional economy centered on the emerging giant, giving it political influence over its neighbors. In Western capitals, alarm bells rang as the nation seemed determined to dominate Asia. Its leaders preached a mantra of “Asia for the Asians” in a bid to intimidate Western powers into retreating.
This was a picture of Japan in the 1930s. It is also a picture of China today.
Imperial Japan was subjected to nuclear attack, defeated in war, disarmed, occupied, and transformed into the first nation in modern history without the right to defend itself under its own laws. The Japanese have spent more than 70 years atoning for the sins of their forefathers and embracing a culture of pacifism that neutered the power of the world’s third-largest economy. Japan threatens no country: Its weakness may be more provocative to hostile neighbors such as North Korea than its strength would be. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe advocates a world order based on “freedom, democracy, the rule of law, and human rights” — the antithesis of the values Japanese militarists once sought to impose on their neighbors.
In contrast, China is engaged in an unprecedented military buildup that none of its neighbors can match. Rather than assuming a defensive orientation, its armed forces are reorganizing around offensive capabilities to project power well beyond China’s borders. Its deployments of weapons such as “carrier-killer” missiles, anti-satellite systems, and offensive cyberwarfare instruments appear specifically designed to target the vulnerabilities of the American military forces that have underwritten the peace of Asia since the 1970s. Nearly all its neighbors have elevated security ties with the United States for fear that China could otherwise dominate the regional balance of power.
Yet it is not China’s power but its behavior that is most troubling. Abandoning solemn promises that it would pursue a “peaceful rise,” the country lately has pursued a 21st-century version of gunboat diplomacy in the South and East China Seas, wielding military force to assert sovereign control over islands and islets claimed or administered by other nations. It has staked a unilateral claim to nearly the entire South China Sea, a waterway bigger than the Mediterranean, through which one-third of world trade passes. Its forces have militarized reefs many hundreds of miles from Chinese territorial waters and created artificial land features on which they have constructed runways for fighter jets and installed missile batteries. The Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled that China’s maritime assertiveness fundamentally violates international law, but Beijing has simply rejected the finding.
Fortunately, the region is better placed to manage China’s rise in the 21st century than it was to handle Imperial Japan’s in the 20th. China’s challenge to the rules-based peace of Asia is unlikely to succeed if Japan remains strong and the U.S.-Japan alliance remains the cornerstone of the region. That’s why China’s government is engaged in a sophisticated propaganda campaign to discredit Japan and crack up the U.S.-Japan alliance. Beijing’s strategy involves tirelessly highlighting Imperial Japan’s wartime record, claiming that the “Abe clique” (which incidentally enjoys a two-thirds majority in the Japanese parliament thanks to overwhelming support from the Japanese public) is intent on following in the footsteps of its forefathers’ militarism. In short, Beijing is arguing that Japan — not China — constitutes the biggest threat to peace.
Chinese officials tell leaders of neighboring nations that the best ticket to continued regional stability and prosperity is a benign Chinese dominion that subjugates those pesky “Japanese devils” and ends their host-nation support for American forces. But it is in the United States and Europe that these arguments find greater traction.
The West’s natural ally in Asia is the one that most shares its values and is least likely to use military force to overthrow the regional balance of power.
Asians have long memories. Vietnamese and Korean nationals remember their centuries of forcible submission to the Celestial Empire; they have no wish to renew it. But the long Western romance with China — growing out of the legend of Marco Polo, the missionary promise to Christianize the East, and the allure of the Chinese market — makes many in the Atlantic community susceptible to the argument that their natural ally across the Pacific is not Japan but China.
In fact, the West’s natural ally in Asia is the one that most shares its values and is least likely to use military force to overthrow the regional balance of power. That country remains Japan, and the U.S.-Japan alliance still provides the shield under which Asia’s prosperity will continue to flourish.
As China’s power spreads across continental Eurasia, the U.S.-Japan alliance remains an alternative pole that draws in South Korea, India, Australia, and Southeast Asian nations that oppose Chinese hegemony in the interest of regional peace. But this informal rim-land coalition is not pursuing containment of China: On the contrary, Asia-Pacific powers enjoy much better relations with Beijing when their alliances are strong than when they stand alone — or when they kowtow.
Japan and India are Asia’s two greatest democracies. Both are sources of inspiration to emerging giants like Indonesia, whose 240 million citizens prefer their open society governed by law to the Chinese model of authoritarian control. Democracies are better able to resolve differences peacefully — as Japan and South Korea recently did over the wartime legacy of Korean “comfort women” forced into prostitution by the Imperial Japanese Army. Democracies are also better able to adapt their institutions to protect and defend their open societies — as Prime Minister Abe has sought to do by incrementally expanding the role of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to better support their American allies in upholding regional peace, including through joint exercises and integrated defenses.
#related#One explanation for the ongoing clash between Japan and China is not the old logic of power politics, though that is very much in play. Rather, it is the ideological conflict between an authoritarian superpower that seeks hegemony and a free society that seeks to safeguard liberal values and a stable balance of power. Who will win the contest between an autocratic Chinese superpower and a constellation of democracies friendly to the United States and determined not to fall under the sway of a new Middle Kingdom? The future of Asia, the world’s emerging center of wealth and power, depends on the outcome.
Beijing’s campaign to dig up every ounce of dirt in Japanese history for Western and Asian audiences with no memory of the Pacific War is designed to cloak China’s present-day revisionism with tales of Japan’s wrongs long ago. The best antidote is for the United States to side with Prime Minister Abe in his campaign to ensure that Japan has the right to defend itself and become, as he puts it, a “proactive partner for peace” to America, India, and other democracies — precisely so that the future of Asia does not resemble its bloody past.