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Bush Fails To Step Between China, Japan Growing Tensions

by Jim Lobe

Japan, China Continue Saber-Rattling

(IPS) WASHINGTON -- Amid growing antagonism between China and Japan, veteran Asia-watchers here are urging President Bush to make clear that Washington has no interest in driving a wedge between them and is prepared to take steps to reverse the deterioration.

Not only is regional growth and stability increasingly threatened by the emotionally charged dynamic that is driving the two Asian heavyweights apart, but given its treaty obligations with Japan, Washington could find itself caught up in an actual confrontation between them, possibly sparked by territorial disputes in the East China Sea.

"More broadly, an intensified rivalry could divide Asia by driving a wedge between the United States and Japan on one side, and China and much of the rest of Asia on the other," according to a policy brief by two specialists released this week by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

That outcome could result from the perception, particularly in Beijing and elsewhere in Asia, that the Bush administration "welcomes Sino-Japanese tension as a way to draw Tokyo into a U.S. strategy of containing China," according to the report, "Simmering Fire in Asia: Averting Sino-Japanese Strategic Conflict."

"Such a stance by the United States would be widely seen as dangerous, and for good reason," according to the two authors, senior Carnegie associates Minxin Pei and Michael Swaine, who stressed that they do not believe the administration has made such a policy decision.

"Yet to some extent, the United States' relatively unsophisticated effort to encourage Japan to take a more activist regional and global security role, combined with its poorly handled response to China's growing regional presence and military capabilities, has contributed to the worsening Sino-Japanese dispute," they wrote.

The new report reflects growing anxiety about the downward spiral in Sino-Japanese relations -- as well as a similar deterioration in South Korean-Japanese ties -- and the administration's passivity in addressing the problem.

Many experts who have recently visited the three countries say they were shocked by the intensity of the emotion stoked by the growing tensions.

Just this week, Beijing effectively ruled out a meeting between Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi at the mid-December East Asia Summit in Malaysia. Beijing is still unhappy with the Japanese leader's October visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, the nationalist memorial to Japan's war dead, including World War II figures convicted of Class A war crimes. South Korea also appeared to rule out a bilateral summit between President Roh Moo-hyun and Koizumi for the same reason.

Some experts here put most of the blame for the deterioration in ties between Japan and its two Northeast Asian neighbors on what Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) analyst Edward Lincoln recently called "the provocative behavior of the Japanese government of the past several years."

Writing in Newsweek Japan, Lincoln noted that Koizumi's Yasukuni visit -- his fifth in four years -- was part of a pattern that included the recent approval of a right-wing history textbook that critics say whitewashed Japanese brutality in World War II and recent remarks by his new foreign minister extolling the benefits of Japanese colonialism in Korea.

The fact that Bush, during his trip last month to all three countries, failed to make this clear -- either publicly or apparently even in private talks with Koizumi -- "encourages the Japanese government to continue provocative behavior, secure in the knowledge that the U.S. government will not complain," according to Lincoln.

"Whether fair or not, the absence of apparent U.S. concerns looks, at the very least, to the rest of Asia like a tacit endorsement of Koizumi's actions; and some circles, it is no doubt is no doubt seen as explicit approval," wrote Christopher Nelson, author of the influential insider newsletter "The Nelson Report," this week.

While the situation is not yet a "crisis," according to Nelson, whose newsletter is widely read among Washington Asia experts and Asian embassies here, he warned it will become one over the next year "if three events continue to interact": the ongoing political debate in Japan over U.S. demands that its constitution be amended to permit the army to assume offensive operations; Koizumi's visits to the Yasukuni Shrine; and the continued deadlock over control of the East China Sea's purported oil and gas deposits.

The Carnegie report stressed that two key factors mitigate against the risks of a genuine cold war breaking out between Beijing and Tokyo. Neither power, according to the authors, is "intentionally pursuing a policy of confrontation," in part because their top policy agendas are economic reform and growth.

In addition, the countries' economies have become interdependent to an unprecedented extent, and "most Japanese and Chinese leaders understand the prohibitive costs should these ties collapse along with their political relations."

But these factors do not by themselves preclude a further deterioration into crisis or cold war, given the growing nationalism in both countries and sense of resentment against the other, according to the report. Moreover, unlike in the 1970s and 1980s when the two countries had leaders who were personally committed to improving ties, that kind of commitment was not as evident among the new generation that has since taken power.

That makes the case for U.S. mediation even more compelling, according to the authors, who recommended that Washington begin by calling for a "cooling-off period, during which both sides refrain from provocative actions" -- be they Chinese naval deployments in the East China Sea or Koizumi's visits to Yasukuni.

Once ties are stabilized after such a period, Washington should promote regional initiatives in key three areas, according to the report.

These entail establishing a tripartite commission consisting of Japan, China and South Korea to examine history books in all three countries and "propose a set of standards to address the most contentious issues involving their content"; forming a regional energy consortium along with other Asian nations and the U.S. to reduce bilateral Sino-Japanese competition for energy resources; and initiating a Northeast Asia security dialogue designed to reduce tensions "as part of a larger exploration of a possible regional security framework."

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Albion Monitor November 30, 2005 (

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