05/01/2020 No. 155
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A Tale of Three Nations
By Yung-Sheng Cha
July 1, 2013

Recent disputes between China and Japan on the Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea received great attention both in Asia and the United States of America. They have the potential of evolving into military conflict in the region, which no one would like to see. Although the conflicts are between China and Japan, the U. S. is involved because it is the sole superpower in the world and because it has some kind of defense treaty with Japan. Each country has its own national interest and as usual, these interests do not coincide. It is interesting that the countries involved are the three largest economies in the world. Following are some of my personal views on this issue.


China has always considered the Diaoyu Islands to be part of its territory. It has voiced objections ever since the early seventies when the U. S. gave the administrative authority of these islands to the Japanese. After the Second World War, Japan was supposed to give back all the territories that it occupied (by treaty or by force) before and during the war. Neither the U. S. nor Japan has sovereignty over these islands. The U. S. and western news often explicitly imply that the cause of these disputes is the result of fast growing military and economic power of China which is trying to flex its muscle. This could not be farther from the truth. The real reason for the recent conflicts is the fact that the Japanese government bought three of the disputed islands and nationalized them. Before the government of Japan bought these islands, it was agreed between China and Japan to shelve these disputes so that the two countries could improve their relations and move on to economic development which would benefit both countries. China's policy on this issue was consistent until the Japanese government broke the status quo.


Historically, China has always been an inward-looking country. It is even more so today (because the domestic challenges are huge) except when its sovereignty and territorial integrity are involved. The majority of Chinese are extremely sensitive and emotional about their country's sovereignty and territorial integrity. This is because China suffered many setbacks over the last 150 years and lost sovereignty and territories to many foreign imperialist powers. Almost all the western powers grabbed a piece of China in the early part of the 20th century. The worst imperialist is Japan which invaded and brutally occupied a great portion of China before and during World War II. The animosity of Chinese towards the Japanese will last for a long time (generations). China will never abandon its sovereignty over these disputed islands until it is resolved to its satisfaction. On the other hand, the attitude and sentiment of the Chinese towards the Americans are quite different from those towards the Japanese as we shall see in the following discussions. 


Why did the Japanese government break the status quo and nationalize these islands? Many people think it is because the U. S. announced about a year ago that it is shifting its security "pivot" towards Asia. It is obvious that the U. S. is trying to contain China, although the U. S. will not openly admit it. The U. S. is trying to form a big circle (South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Australia, Vietnam, India, and Afghanistan) in an attempt to isolate China. With the support of the U. S. to control China, the Japanese government apparently thought that it is a good opportunity now to grab the disputed islands. However, there is another (more important) reason why the Japanese government felt that it had to make the move. The Japanese economy was stagnant for the last 15 years (almost zero growth) while China had been growing at about 10% a year for the same period of time. China's GDP has already surpassed that of Japan. Ten years from now, China's economy could be twice as large as Japan’s. Time is definitely on China's side. The policy makers in Japan are keenly aware of this factual trend of declining Japan and rising China. If Japan does not move now, it will be much more difficult to deal with China in the future.


When a country is not doing well economically, nationalism could easily rise. This is what is happening in Japan. The majority of Japanese would like to see the build-up of Japanese military and return to the glorious time before the Second World War. However, the Japanese Constitution (which was drawn up by General Douglas MacArthur) will not allow that to happen. You would think that the Constitution can be changed or amended if the majority of the people are in favor of it. Unfortunately for Japan, it is not going to happen. Even though Japan is the third largest economy in the world with a population of 127 million, it cannot change its constitution without the approval of the U. S. (both the U. S. and Japanese governments will not admit this). For example, the majority of Japanese would like to develop long-range offensive weapons, such as aircraft carriers and nuclear bombs, so that Japan can be a military power again. They have the technology and capability of accomplishing that in a relatively short period of time. But the U. S. will not allow that to happen. Japanese aircraft carriers were the key weapons used in the sneak attack of Pearl Harbor which caused serious damage to the U. S. Navy in 1941. Atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed hundreds of thousands of Japanese. It was the only time nuclear weapons were employed in the history of mankind. I do not think that the Japanese will ever forget it, neither will the U. S. It is amazing that a sovereign country as large as Japan cannot defend itself and still relies on the U. S. for its protection. But the U. S. protection is a double-edged sword. The U. S. still maintains large number of troops in Okinawa with advanced weapons.  The troops are there for the protection of Japan. But there is another very important reason for the U. S. to station troops there. It is to control Japan so that it will not go back to militarism like it did before and during World War II. Japan was occupied by the U. S. after World War II. Over the past 60 years, the U. S. has gradually relinquished its control. But so far the U. S. has not completely given up its occupational status.


The Japanese government would not have moved to nationalize these islands without the consent or approval of the U. S. According to a recent article written by Steven Harner in Forbes magazine (The U. S. Could Have Prevented the Senkaku/Diaoyu Crisis. Why did it not? February 14, 2013), Japan solicited the position of U. S. on nationalization of these islands and was told that the U. S. "did not oppose." If the U. S. had opposed the nationalization of these islands by the Japanese government, the current tension between China and Japan would not have risen and the probability of a military conflict would be extremely small. Harner blamed it on the then Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. But I think this decision fits the new (ill-conceived) U. S. policy of containing China.


In addition to the territorial disputes in the south with China, Japan also has territorial disputes with South Korea in the west and with Russia in the north. Unlike the disputes with China, Japan did not choose to do anything now on these disputes with South Korea and Russia because there is no urgency to do so. First, the U. S. is not trying to contain South Korea (it is also a U. S. ally) and Russia (it would be a big mistake for the U. S. to go back to the policies of the cold war era). More importantly, the economies of South Korea and Russia are not only much smaller than that of Japan but also not growing as fast as China. Japan does not have to fear that these two countries will overtake Japan in the foreseeable future.


It is extremely unfortunate that Japan became an imperialist nation and brutally occupied and invaded many Asian countries before and during World War II. Japan was a victim of the western imperialism before the 20th century. But when Japan acquired the technologies of the industrial countries of the west, it turned around and brutalized other Asian countries even worse than the western imperialist countries.


The U. S., being the sole superpower in the world, is involved in almost every dispute or conflict in the world. It is no exception that the U. S. is deeply involved in the disputes between China and Japan. First, Japan is a so-called ally. But more importantly, controlling the rise of China is a strategic goal of U. S. policy (although it will not openly admit that). It is to the benefit of the U. S. that China and Japan became more hostile towards each other. Similarly in the South China Sea, the U. S. would like to see countries like Vietnam, the Philippines, etc. to stand up to China in their disputes over some small islands. This all fits into the grand strategy of containing and controlling China although it is a very short-sighted policy.


I think the U. S. policy of containing China needs to be reexamined carefully. What are we gaining in containing China? Does it make sense to treat China as an adversary, instead of as a friend or partner? The love and hate relation between China and the U. S. has been going on since the early forties of the 20th century. U. S. and China were allies during World War II in fighting the Japanese in the Pacific. Then came the Korean War and the war in Vietnam. Near the end of the war against North Vietnam, China and U. S. became partners again in the cold war against the former Soviet Union. We must remember that China was an ally both in World War II and the cold war. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was a period of about 20 years when the relation between the two countries was fairly warm and cordial. This was mainly because the U. S. was focusing its attention on Iraq, Iran, and terrorists' activities in Afghanistan. It was also because China was still a very poor and backward country.


But that situation has changed because of the tremendous and unprecedented growth in China over the last 20 years. The conservatives and the policy makers in the U. S. were alarmed and the results were the recent announcement of change in foreign and defense policy by shifting the weight (or security "pivoting") towards Asia. Followed by the announcement, the U. S. has increased its military exercises with South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Australia, etc. in the Pacific. The U. S. also announced that the strategic goal of pivoting towards Asia is to maintain stability in that region. The word "pivoting" towards Asia is vague, but it is clear to everyone that the policy was meant to encircle and contain China.


But the actions of the U. S. in the Pacific are moving in the opposite direction of its announced short and long term strategic goals. The fact is that the immediate effect of this new policy is to increase tensions between China and its neighbors in the East and South China Seas. These increased tensions made the region more unstable than it was. Just look at the conflicts between China and Japan on the Diaoyu Islands. The increased military activities (scrambled jet fighters and patrol ships near these islands) from both sides could easily trigger an armed confrontation which could in turn drag both countries (plus the U. S.) into war. How does that help to achieve the openly announced objective of maintaining stability in the region by the U. S.?


The U. S. policy of containing China is also running contrary to its objective of maintaining stability in the region over the long term. The relation between China and the U. S. are the most important not only for Asia but also for the world. The stability of Asia and the world will certainly improve if the relation between the U. S. and China can become friendlier, not to mention the economic benefits for both countries. Furthermore, if the U. S. wants China to be more democratic and more pro-western, the most effective way of achieving that is through the building of a society in which the majority of its population is middle-class. Containing China will only delay the progress towards a middle-class society, not to mention the possibility that it may backfire and move China in the opposite direction.  This long term view of engaging China has probably been the most important driver of the U. S. policy towards China over the last 40 years. There is no reason or justification for the U. S. to change this policy at this juncture. The containment policy should be abandoned and the engagement policy should be continued, if not enhanced.


The majority of Chinese do not look at the U. S. in the same way as they look at Japan. The U. S. never invaded China militarily (except during the Boxer rebellion). The warm relation between China and the U. S. during the last 20-30 years has changed the views of many Chinese from that of the Mao era which considered the U. S. as the largest imperialist of the world. The U. S. should continue its policy of engagement and move China and the majority of Chinese towards a friendlier U. S. As a Chinese American, I certainly would like to see an improved relationship between the U. S. and China. This policy certainly fits the long term goal of a more stable and peaceful world because the relation between China and the U. S. is and will be the most important in the 21st century.


Y. S. Cha

May, 2013

Darien, Illinois

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Yung-Sheng Cha graduated from the Mechanical Engineering Department of National Taiwan University in 1967. He received his MS and Ph.D. degrees in Mechanical Engineering from Lehigh University in 1970 and 1973, respectively. He was employed by the Argonne National Laboratory in 1974 until his retirement in 2006. While at Argonne, his research focus was mainly in different energy systems. Dr. Cha is a U. S. citizen.
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