Sabre-rattling in the Pacific

Nicholas D Kristof

In both China and Japan, the risk of conflict has grown with rising nationalism

When I studied Chinese many years ago, my teacher in Beijing explained to me the meaning of the word "hen" for hatred: It's the way we Chinese feel about Japan. And, a couple of times over the years, I've had Chinese tell me that America's big mistake after World War II was failing to exterminate the entire Japanese population.

This loathing for Japan, now harnessed to a growing military power, forms the backdrop for dangerous tensions in the East China Sea. Nobody wants war over a handful of uninhabited rocks in the Pacific Ocean, but there's risk of an accident spinning out of control. Moreover, Japan, China and the United States have botched their handling of these enormously sensitive territorial disputes, and we now have nationalists at the helm of Japan and China.

This is a chance for everyone to take a deep breath and think about the rise of China the most important geopolitical trend of our time. China is projected to surpass the US to become the world's largest economy, after allowing for price differences, in about three years, according to estimates of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, a group that includes the world's industrialised countries. China's currency has just overtaken the euro as the second most used in trade finance, after the dollar. China's government is investing heavily in its military, including a blue water navy, and plenty of Chinese believe that their government has been too conciliatory and wimpish. Indeed, a more democratic China might well be more assertive and more challenging to its neighbours particularly Japan.

China actually has a reasonable claim to the Diaoyu Islands, as it calls them, although it is increasingly ham-handed in asserting those claims. The strongest evidence comes from Japanese government documents of the Meiji era, referring to the islands as China's and scheming to grab them which is what Japan did when China was weak in 1895. It renamed the islands the Senkakus. After World War II, the US controlled the islands, and, in 1972, it handed over "administration" to its ally Japan without taking a position on who owns them. Conflict has grown with rising nationalism in both China and Japan (Taiwan, which also claims the islands, has been most levelheaded).

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