China-Japan rift hurts America, tooSINGAPORE China's cancellation of a fence-mending visit by the Japanese foreign minister following Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's visit to a shrine dedicated to Japan's war dead highlights once again where the real threat to security in East Asia is emanating from.
The fact that Beijing called off Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura's visit in the teeth of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's arrival in Beijing further underlines the seriousness of the rift between China and Japan, and suggests that Washington should pay more attention to the problem, which threatens to spoil the inaugural East Asian Summit in December.
Few doubted that Koizumi would find the time after his election victory to pay a visit to the Yasukuni shrine, his fifth since taking office. To stay popular, Koizumi must pander to a growing number of Japanese who want to shed the shame of their defeat in World War II.
China's problem with Japan highlights a paradox: The same Communist Party leaders who argue that popular democracy must be broached with extreme caution, also argue that popular expressions of nationalism must be tolerated. A few demonstrators were allowed to present a petition to the Japanese embassy in Beijing over Koizumi's shrine visit.
The potential fallout from enduring Chinese-Japanese tensions is severe. Machimura was scheduled to meet Chinese leaders to diffuse tension over disputed natural gas fields in the East China Sea. At stake is enough natural gas to fulfill Japan's domestic needs and feed China's energy-hungry industry. China has started exploring in the area and Japan is threatening to send in warships to bring a halt to the drilling. Before they were canceled, the Beijing talks offered hope of a compromise.
The wider region stands to lose as well. All of Asia's leaders are scheduled to gather in Kuala Lumpur for an inaugural East Asian summit in December. The fact that China won't let Japan's foreign minister visit Beijing - and that South Korea's top diplomat has canceled a trip to Tokyo over the shrine visit - doesn't bode well for what is meant to be a display of Asian friendship and the measure of collective security it symbolizes.
The worry in other Asian capitals is that Beijing's preoccupation with chastising Japan will weaken the commitment of its leaders to the benign regional diplomacy that has been the hallmark of President Hu Jintao's and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao's tenure. How much longer can China boast of a "peaceful rise" when it is saber-rattling with Tokyo over resources and history?
In some Southeast Asian capitals, there is already concern that Beijing is losing interest in the East Asian Summit. There has been very little in the way of official commentary out of Beijing in the run up to the December meeting; China is keeping its partners guessing as to what it wants to see achieved in Kuala Lumpur.
Some in Washington will welcome this state of affairs. Tension between China and Japan serves to reinforce the U.S. alliance with Japan and offsets Japan's increasing economic dependence on China. The United States isn't happy about its exclusion from the East Asia Summit and will quietly cheer any upset. Rumsfeld, who this week made his first official visit to Beijing as defense secretary, has made no secret of his desire to see China's military rise checked; the belligerence of official Chinese rhetoric towards Japan helps justify his concerns.
This isn't necessarily what the rest of Asia wants to see, however, and criticism of Koizumi's shrine visit hasn't been confined to Beijing. Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore, all U.S. allies, have also criticized the move.
Washington needs to realize that everyone wants to see China engage the region peacefully and that urgent efforts should be made to set Beijing back on this path. No one wants to see China and Japan using their considerable economic power to garner political support - which happened over Tokyo's bid for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council earlier this year.
Competition between Asia's two largest powers is bad for regional security. If America truly wishes to act as a bulwark for security in Asia, it would do well to focus on helping to mend relations between China and Japan.
(Michael Vatikiotis is a visiting research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore.)