Japan, China, and the United States are connected in nearly every conceivable way. You might say that there are geographic distinctions, but in the end their interests are too close together for space to matter much. Communication and travel are helped along by technology, which further breaks down the physical barriers. This breakdown between the three countries and other powers in the region is one of the major reasons for the increasing tensions.
What are the Issues?
JAPAN and the US-
Ever since the end of WWII Japan has been reliant on the US for military protection and trade. A proud people with a long history and rich tradition, some Japanese have chafed under the constant US presence. Many Japanese also remember the horrors of war and want no part of it. These two ideals push against each other in Japanese society. The desire for peace and the need to stand up as adults without big brother watching over their shoulders are not necessarily mutually exclusive. This is best seen in Okinawa, where the majority of US military bases are housed. Most Okinawan people do not understand the need, both strategically and economically, for the bases presence. At the forefront of their minds are the crashes, rapes, and noise caused by American military personnel. This means that while many Okinawans want the American military gone (a feeling many Japanese share), the Japanese government has to balance past agreements with its current and future needs. For the US’s part, Japan is an important trading partner and ally. It is also located between the US’s two largest potential enemies, China and North Korea.
JAPAN and CHINA-
Japan and China have long histories. Once Japan looked up to China with admiration as it absorbed Chinese culture and language, adapting Chinese characters to the Japanese language and even integrating Confucian and Buddhist ideals. Later during the World Wars Japan turned on its old teacher, trying in turn to become a colonial power like the western counties had in years past. The scars from that time still run deep in China and other Pacific countries.
As China has developed economically, its former nemesis has become one of its most important trading partners. Japan has invested heavily in China as well, bringing Japanese products and technology that China desperately wanted. Still, China has not forgotten its past. Through all its economic progresses, China has driven its newfound resources towards military buildup and PR. Instead of working to improve the lives of its people it has focused on military power and showing the world it is now a world power. It is a bit reminiscent of Japan during the colonial days. Japan took colonies because that’s what the civilized world did. Although the world was moving away from the practice of conquering its neighbors, Japan was late to the game and was still trying to catch up. Today China is the one who is late to the game. Today’s game is economics; China is only beginning to understand its power as an economic powerhouse with the potential of a billion people supply and demand. In its rush to appear a world power it is making the same sacrifices, some of the same mistakes Japan did nearly 100 years ago. It has given money and power to people who have had so little in the past. China’s military is now modern without anything to do. It has no purpose except to exist… unless it creates a purpose for itself. Now suddenly China is having territorial disputes with its neighbors. With a military with nothing to do and a long memory as the once center of the Asian world, some people might decide it’s time for China to flex more than its economic muscles.
CHINA and the US-
China has its own scars from dealing with the United States. In the aftermath of the Cold War, China still distrusts US motives. The support and protection the US gives to Taiwan is a thorn that festers with every US arms sale. Despite all that, China realized it could not exist as a strictly socialist state for long. Chinese leaders began to open up to foreign investment and technology. They knew they could not maintain control over such a wide and diverse population without the resources and technology of the developed world. North Korea is a prime example of the effects of being shut off from the international community. The Chinese leaders tried to lure companies into investing in state owned enterprises. It was a method that gave them the access and control they sought, however, western companies and countries were skittish about giving up so much control in return for a questionable return.
China began its PR campaign. Over the years it has struggled to change its image, but in the background much is the same. State controlled companies still oversee or have controlling interest in the biggest companies. Western companies invested because it was the only way to be profitable in the changing global market. They gave up technology for profit. The consequence was a new explosion of ripped-off merchandise and technology and now later with Chinese brands that are more competitive globally. Along with all the investment China has prospered. The west’s war on terror and wars in the Middle East have been largely financed by China’s newfound economic potential. Over the past few years’ America in particular has had a growing trade deficit with China, in which America now owes trillions of dollars. For years China has also kept the Yuan artificially low, which encouraged people and companies to continue buying from China because it was cheaper to do so than other countries with non-manipulated currencies. The world economic collapse has only made this worse. With less money to spend, more people are spending on Chinese goods because they are cheap. China has learned its capitalist lessons well. It has profited on war and depression.
Instead of taking the wealth generated by the trade surpluses and pulling up its people, the Chinese leaders, in true communist form, have instead chosen to build up their military and advertising campaigns. The Olympics were just one example of China’s desire to look developed without actually helping its people to develop. America’s issues with China are threefold: China still has innumerable human rights issues outstanding, China manipulates its currency to profit on war and economic depression, and China has a huge military that does not like to communicate, has nothing to do, and may be growing in political power in addition to its military buildup.
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704518104575545920279273664.html?mod=WSJASIA_hpp_MIDDLETopStories – see this recent WSJ article for information on Chinese and US military talks
How Does it All Come Together?
Japan’s near economic recovery is now in serious doubt as it battles a strong Yen. When faced with competition from China, with its low Yuan, Japan’s exports cannot compete as well on the global market. With China and other investors keeping the Yen high despite its worsening economy Japan has been pressured into actively selling Yen and buying foreign currencies to try and lower its value. This has sparked a global currency war in which countries are jousting to keep their own currencies low and exports competitive. The US meanwhile owes China trillions of dollars. It’s debt will continue to rise each year unless it can start selling as much or more to China as it buys from China. Unfortunately, with the Yuan still artificially weak America cannot do that. A stronger Yuan vs. the Dollar would also help the US pay back China more easily. China for its part continues keep the Yuan artificially low, although it has allowed it to increase somewhat due to international pressures.
Japan wanted America off Okinawa… until China started throwing around its weight in the South China Sea. Now with such an obvious provocation and threat to not only their economy but territory as well, Japan is seeking closer economic and military ties with the US. Most Okinawans still don’t want the military on their island, but they also are beginning to realize there is little they can do with an uncaged tiger next door. Tokyo’s inability to deal with a simple ship collision highlights much deeper problems between the two countries. While most countries would have no problem with the arrest of the person responsible for ramming two boats, China’s sudden and vehement reaction hint at darker purposes. Did the boat captain act alone? Was he supported by someone, even unofficially from China’s military? Or did China simply just chafe at having one of its citizens arrested in what it asserts is its own territory? If the islands were such a big concern of theirs, one might assume they would take control of them, and not leave them in the control of the Japanese Coast Guard as they have been. They certainly have the ability to do so. It is interesting that China chose to attack Japan economically, slowing trade and stopping orders, to pressure Japan into releasing the boat captain quickly
Overshadowed by economic and military concerns are the human rights issues still occurring in China. Tibet still suffocates under China’s control. Minorities such as the Uighers are arrested and killed. Dissidents are jailed and silenced. Despite China’s growth its people are still poor. The depth of social problems are apparent by attacks on children in schools, mining incidents, worker strikes, and even more that never makes it out of China. I once thought that as China gained its new technology, as it’s people became connected to the world through news and the internet, that China would cease to be a problem, that it would join the world as a partner. Instead China spends vast resources to censor television, radio and even the internet. China still tries to keep its people from realizing that despite all the trade imbalances, despite all the recessions and economic problems, the average American still has it better than the average Chinese person. What would happen if a billion people started asking where was their socialist cut? So China has clamped down on its people’s freedom, because they are afraid. And they should be.
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704164004575547980386622738.html?mod=WSJASIA_hpp_MIDDLETopStories – an article on China’s response to international pressure to release Nobel Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo
Where to Go From Here.
The world is starting to pay more attention. Companies like Google are standing up to China’s censorship. Americans are realizing that part of what they owe China is because China has manipulated its currency. China’s leaders wonder why they don’t get Nobel Prizes, then rage when one is given to a voice of dissent. They wonder why they are not included more in the international community when they actively support and trade with North Korea, Iran, and other states that support terrorism.
The rest of the world is watching. Asian countries have recognized the fact that China has a military with nothing to do. That it is flexing its muscles in disputed territories. Instead of talking with China, they are talking with each other. China’s unbalanced financial and political practices are finally starting to help forge more dialog and new connections among Japan’s former empire. For its part Japan will have to take a hard look at what kind of future it wants for itself. Should it continue to work with the United States for its security? Can it afford not to? With its current economic outlook Japan cannot afford to build up a military capable of deterring China should it wish to exert its territorial claims. The scars from past wars may be enough that even if it was possible to do so they would not. That being said, Japan’s people and leaders must look within to find a (perhaps difficult) solution to the base issue. Okinawa cannot afford to lose the money it receives from the American bases, neither can Japan. Nor can it afford to lose the strategic and commercial ties it has with America with China’s leadership’s motivations so unclear.
Going forward, China will have to make a choice. Will it abandon its old ways? Will it let its currency float? Will it give its population a voice? Will it listen to that voice or crush it? China can become the economic and cultural center of the Pacific once again… or it can eventually fade away just like the others who reached for too much without truly understanding the strength of the world around them.