China, Japan need to change course to avoid collision

AMID all the noise about the economic reforms launched last week by China, it was easy to overlook another important change. The Chinese government is setting up a National Security Council, coordinating its military, intelligence and domestic security structures. The model is said to be America's NSC. But China's move also parallels developments in Japan, where Mr Shinzo Abe's government, too, is setting up a National Security Council.

Under ordinary circumstances, this modernisation of military and security structures would not be cause for concern. But these are not ordinary times. For the past year, China and Japan have been engaged in dangerous military jostling, as they push their rival territorial claims to some uninhabited islands, known as the Senkaku to the Japanese and the Diaoyu to the Chinese. In one recent week, Japan scrambled fighter jets three times in response to Chinese overflights. China, meanwhile, complains that Japanese ships came provocatively close to a recent live-fire exercise carried out by its navy.

With tensions high, the revamping of the two countries' security structures takes on a more ominous tone.

It is hard to believe either China or Japan actually wants a war. The bigger risk is that military posturing around the islands will lead to an accidental clash - and the governments of both nations would then be trapped by their own nationalist rhetoric, making it very hard to climb down.

Both sides now routinely accuse each other of irresponsible behaviour and out-of-control nationalism. Both insist that, if pushed, they are willing to use military force to defend their claims to the uninhabited rocks that they are disputing.

In Beijing recently, I listened to a top general from the People's Liberation Army insist that China would never make the mistakes of Japan in the 1930s by taking the path of militarism. Just weeks earlier in Tokyo, I had heard a Japanese official drawing a different conclusion from the same history: "The Chinese are making exactly the mistakes we made in the 1930s," he asserted. "They are allowing the military to break free from civilian control. And they are challenging American power in the Pacific."

A conflict between China and Japan - the second- and third- largest economies in the world - would obviously be disastrous. It could also easily become a global conflict. The United States is pledged to defend Japan through the US-Japan Security Treaty. And, though the Americans say they take no formal position on who has sovereignty over the islands, they do recognise that the islands are under the administrative control of Japan - which means they are covered by the security treaty.

The whole dispute is shaped by the continuing growth in the economic might of China. Current projections suggest it is likely to be the largest economy in the world by 2020 - claiming a title that has been held by America since the 1880s. And while the US military has a size and sophistication that China is not yet close to matching, Chinese military spending is growing fast - at a time when the Pentagon is retrenching. Japan has just announced a small increase in its own military budget. But the country is drowning in debt, and knows it cannot keep pace with Chinese military spending.

These shifts in economic and military weight have created uncertainty about the future balance of power. And uncertainty tempts powerful nations to test each other's limits and capabilities. An extra layer of danger is added by the bitter legacy of history.

In China, President Xi Jinping argues that one of the main tasks of the Communist Party is to overcome the historic humiliations his country has suffered - foremost among which was invasion by Japan. But in Tokyo, the Abe government has adopted a more nationalistic and less apologetic rhetoric about the past. The dispute is deeply personal for both men. Mr Abe's grandfather and mentor administered Japanese-occupied Manchuria in the 1930s, when President Xi's father was part of the Chinese communist forces fighting the Japanese.

If China and Japan are to avoid a mutually destructive collision, both sides need to change course. The establishment of a crisis hotline between Tokyo and Beijing, a move resisted by China, would be very helpful. But something bigger is also needed on both sides - an acknowledgment of the legitimacy of each other's fears and resentments.

Amid all its complaints about Chinese nationalism, the Abe government has failed to address Japan's own failings. It is not only the Chinese who are offended by Japan's attitude to history. Many other Asian nations are similarly appalled. At a time when Japan's relative power is inexorably declining in Asia, the country cannot afford nationalist posturing.

But precisely because Japan is frightened by China's rise, it is afraid to take any step that could be seen as weakness. By contrast, China can afford to be magnanimous. It is the rising power. So it should make it absolutely explicit that - whatever the disputes between the two nations - China accepts that Japan has a secure and honourable place in the emerging political order in Asia. Such a step would provide vital reassurance to the government in Tokyo - and it would also be massively in Beijing's interests. For, as long as peace prevails, China's rise can continue uninterrupted.