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Home > Debates Last Updated: 12:10 05/16/2008
Commentary (May 16, 2008)

Jim Hoagland Swings and Misses Mightily on Hu's Visit

Jun OKUMURA (Counselor, Eurasia Group)


China and Japan have been reliable enemies for a thousand years. Their leaders have always been able to count on each other to stir nationalist anger and distract their followers from other problems by trading insults, threats or at times blows. So an abnormally friendly five-day visit to Japan by Chinese President Hu Jintao causes many here to wonder what has suddenly gone right in the relationship between the two giants of Asia -- and whether it can last. -Jim Hoagland, 2008 May 11, The Washington Post

Jim Hoagland has nice things to say about Japan in comparison to China in his May 11 WaPo op-ed, so perhaps I should not complain. Moreover, he blames Jiang Zemin for the most recent chill in relations and gives the nod to Yasuo Fukuda for the subsequent improvement; better, if true, than the other way around. However, he displays a total ignorance of local history, both ancient and contemporary, in putting the latest piece of Japan-China summitry into its proper context. Let me explain.

When Mr. Hoagland claims that "China and Japan have been reliable enemies for a thousand years", he is likely referencing: the 1274 and 1281 invasions of Japan under the Yuan Dynasty, the 1592-93 Japanese invasion (and also, by one method of reckoning, the 1594-96 invasion) of Korea during the Ming Dynasty, and the half century of bilateral hostilities that began with the 1894-95 Japan-China War, flared up again in 1931 in open conflict with Japan's invasion of Manchuria and ended with Japan's 1945 unconditional surrender to the Allied Powers in WW II. So they add up to 58 years of outright hostility, including 21 years of warfare, out of 735 years and counting. Never mind the difference between 1000 and 735; this compares favorably with the relationship between, say England and France between the times of William the Conqueror and Napoleon Bonaparte.

Even more damaging to Mr. Hoagland's narrative, the centuries of peace right up to the Meiji Restoration between those brief spurts of violence charged by dynastic, short-lived ambitions had been marked by a consistent Japanese reverence for and emulation of the cultural artifacts of the Sinic civilization. Some Japanese private-sector plundering and pillaging-often in consort with local counterparts-notwithstanding, the long-term historical relationship has by and large been a pleasant and uncomplicated one, in comparison to, say, that between the Europeans or between the United States and Mexico.

A look at the map tells us why. Between 600 and 894, Japan sent Imperial embassies to the Sui and Tang Dynasties. By some accounts, two-thirds of the ships that carried the envoys and their entourage failed to return from their voyages across the treacherous seas between Japan and China. Even with subsequent improvements in traditional seafaring technology and navigation skills, launching a hostile expedition carrying an army large enough to defeat the enemy was not a task to be lightly taken. Like elsewhere, it was left to the advent of the steam engine to generate and power Japan's ultimately futile imperial ambitions.

Another look at the map reminds us of the venue for those pre-modern assaults, and indeed the route for many (but by no means all) of those Imperial embassies: the Korean Peninsula. For it has been the singular tragedy of the Korean people for their homeland to lie at the nexus of the history of conflicts between its two neighbors, and their ultimate triumph to have maintained their national identity and territorial integrity through its own history stretching back a millennium and more. In an uncanny foreboding of the Japan-China War, the Japanese and Chinese authorities joined their respective Korean allies in the year 663 for the Battle of Hakusukinoe, in what is now Jeollabuk-do, in South Korea. (Unlike the 19th Century war, Japan ended up on the losing side, thus ending its influence on the Korean Peninsula for the time being.) In fact, all three wars or sets of wars that I cite passed through the Korean Peninsula and did harm to the Koreans, albeit to widely different degrees.

But I digress. Suffice to say that by no stretch of the imagination can it be conceivable that "[t]heir leaders have always been able to count on each other to stir nationalist anger and distract their followers from other problems by trading insults, threats or at times blows." Mr. Hoagland is extrapolating the turn of events during the five years of the Koizumi administration-even here, Mr. Hoagland likely misunderstands the motives for Prime Minister Koizumi's actions-and more broadly the ups and (mainly) downs of the preceding hundred-odd years to the entire bilateral relationship.

Now to more recent history, where Mr. Hoagland claims that Prime Minister Fukuda "has dramatically changed the national tone on China since he came to office in September" and appears to believe that as a result something "has suddenly gone right in the relationship between the two giants of Asia". Now I have no doubt that Mr. Fukuda is a calming, pro-China presence where the bilateral relationship is concerned. However, Mr. Hoagland ignores completely the role of Shinzo Abe, who reigned briefly in 2006-2007 between Prime Ministers Fukuda and Mr. Koizumi, and, more significantly, the substantial groundwork that had been laid down by both the Japanese and Chinese sides to resuscitate the relationship at the top in the last year of Mr. Koizumi's reign. The supposedly revisionist Abe willingly took part in these preparations, and upon his succession to the Premiership immediately flew to Beijing (and subsequently to Seoul), in one of the few unalloyed political triumphs in his short tenure.

China was a more than a passive, junior partner in this process. In 2004, China hosted the Asian Cup soccer tournament. When the event ended in a Japanese victory over Bahrain, angry Chinese hooligans burned Japanese flags, attacked the Japanese Consulate-General in his car and mobbed the hotel where the Japanese side was staying. The following year, when anti-Japanese demonstrations broke out, the Chinese authorities appeared to side with the demonstrators. However, they clearly came to realize that in tacitly condoning the unprecedented actions of the Chinese public, they had unleashed a monster that could pose a security threat to domestic stability and an existential threat to its one-party regime. Since then, quietly but steadily, they worked quietly with the Japanese side to mend fences under a Prime Minister who could step away from Mr. Koizumi's vow to continue to visit the Yasukuni Shrine. Mr. Abe's visit was the threshold event of the bilateral efforts; the subsequent mutual visits, culminating in the agreement during Mr. Hu's visit to put the exchange on a permanent, annual basis. Without minimizing Mr. Fukuda's role in achieving the most recent piece of progress, the entire process is a now three-year old, ongoing venture that far transcends the inclinations and personality of any single individual. In fact, we should look even further, and hark back to the 1972 Joint Statement, which Mssrs. Fukuda and Hu properly reference; the relationship has been on the mend, on and off, for the last 36 years-that is the intermediate historical context of the latest visit.

We are neighbors; neighbors, moreover, with remarkably similar profiles-resource-poor industrialized nations with aging populations. At different stages of development, we may be competitors, but we are also complimentary collaborators. Fighting does not help either of us. Thus it has been for most of our shared history. The post-Koizumi turn of events is a return to the lessons of history. Note that all three wars ended in dismal failure for the aggressor. We are returning to the natural, more desirable order of things**.

* Mr. Hoagland says of Mr. Hu, "There was none of the insulting bombast of Jiang Zemin, the Chinese president who visited here in 1998 and cast a decade-long pall on Japanese-Chinese relations." I could not find a way to integrate my thoughts on this within the flow of this essay. So briefly: Mr. Jiang is reputed to hold a visceral antipathy towards Japan from his wartime experience, and his 1998 trip is widely regarded as a diplomatic failure. But it was a series of later events not limited to but coming to be symbolized by Mr. Koizumi's Yasukuni visits (which, incidentally, made it easier to defuse the entire crisis, once Mr. Koizumi stepped down) that raised the situation to crisis levels in both China and South Korea; not Mr. Jiang's harangue.

** Think of this as a long relationship that has seen its ups and downs. The two nations have their disagreements, which sometimes flare up into full-fledged fights, dragging in our unwilling neighbors. Most recently, they hadn't been talking to each other, but now they've kissed and made up. But the United States remains Japan's most recent and most important squeeze. This is an application of my Bob&Ted&Carol&Alice& Theory of International Relations.

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