Honour and history between neighbours

THE current clashes between China and Japan over the Diaoyu/ Senkaku islands constitute more than a mere dispute over specks of rock, no matter how much oil or fishing resources the islands might boast of.

The festering dispute is instead driven by two major factors: honour and history.

It was the Greek historian Thucydides who came up with the triptych of "fear, honour and interest". Through time, the three factors have driven countries to war, with honour weighing heavily in decisions to fight.

In the Diaoyu/Senkaku case, honour is hardening the positions of both sides.

China feels that its honour has been aggrieved and therefore must be restored. And given that Beijing is facing a critical leadership change this year, the government cannot afford to look weak.

Embedded deep in the Japanese psyche is an acute sensitivity to dignity and honour. With growing fears of incipient decline in Japan, no administration can avoid an opportunity to flex some diplomatic muscle.

To complicate things, the long list of Japanese atrocities in China's history has been used by Beijing as a starting point in its relationship with Tokyo. In 1991, it was Professor Takashi Inoguchi, a prominent Japanese academic, who labelled this Japan's "debt of history".

The palpable sense of this "debt of history" was only evident last week, when widespread anti-Japanese protests occurred across China on the 81st anniversary of Japan's invasion of China.

No wonder the fiery cocktail of honour and history has led to the lack of flexibility on both sides.

Last week, Chinese general Liang Guanglie said China reserved the right to "further actions" over the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute after Japan declared that it would "buy" the islands. Gen Liang's comments led United States Defence Secretary Leon Panetta to call for restraint on both sides.

Arguably, a comprehensive solution to the current impasse is pretty straightforward.

Beijing should rein in anti-Japanese protests and deal with Japan rationally to maintain their strategic relations. To its credit, China has gone some way in doing so.

China should also realise that it has reared a generation fed a diet of anti-Japanese propaganda. It should educate its citizens of Japan's proven record of aid and contributions to China.

As for Japan, it should be more sensitive to the needs of its Asian neighbours, China's in particular.

Writing in this newspaper recently, retired French diplomat Yo-Jung Chen argued that Japan needed to treat its Asian neighbours with the same respect that it treated the West. Many young Japanese are not even aware that Japan had waged war against the US and Asia, the Japanese-educated Mr Chen added.

Tokyo should also rethink its controversial "purchase" of the Senkaku islands.

Over time, both China and Japan should also put aside their dispute over a dispute momentarily - that is, both insist that the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands belong to them, hence there is no dispute. They should submit the case to a third party such as the International Court of Justice.

But such tangible actions constitute the relatively easier part. In the long run, the intangibles will be far harder to deliver. Therein lies the heart of the China-Japan problem.

Japan has repeatedly argued that it has apologised for its wartime atrocities, and made the appropriate restitution.

But many observers think otherwise. To them, past apologies by Japanese leaders are deemed insincere, given Japan's inability to stop its leaders from visiting the controversial Yasukuni shrine and the emergence of revisionist textbooks about Japan's wartime past.

In 1992, for example, Japanese Emperor Akihito expressed a "feeling of deep sorrow" for Japanese atrocities committed in China during World War II. His expression of regret was deemed more an act of "political theatre" than a sincere move towards reconciliation.

"Japanese officials are always well-prepared and thoroughly researched when it comes to international disputes. But in their rationality, they fail to get a good grasp of the depth of emotion and feeling of aggrievement on the part of countries such as China and South Korea," an Asian diplomat told me.

"Tokyo's past apologies cannot be deemed to be sincere, given visits to Yasukuni shrine and its inability to rein in right-wingers who seek to whitewash the country's past," he added.

The diplomat's view is shared by Straits Times readers. Writing in the ST Forum page recently, Mr Albert Tye said that Japan's "so-called apologies were seen by many as less than total repentance, as is evident time and again by the actions of some of its leaders".

As for China, the challenge would be a historic forgiveness of Japan. The notion might sound too bleeding heart in the hard-nosed world of global diplomacy and international relations. But acts of national forgiveness are important in that they break the cycles of hate and unforgiveness that go down decades, even centuries.

Many contemporary conflicts are manifestations of injuries done through history. In the 1990s, the Serbs were portrayed as the villains of the Balkans, but the Serbs - together with gypsies and Jews - were killed at the hands of Croats and Germans in the 1940s.

The lack of forgiveness highlights a Newtonian dynamic - for every atrocity, there is an opposite (and not always equal) atrocity.

The notion of forgiveness would be rejected outright by most Chinese. But thankfully, there are voices in the wilderness which have called for exactly such a thing.

Some years back, Shanghai-based writer and critic Ge Hongbing wrote that relations between France and Germany, as well as between Britain and Germany, served as models for improving Sino-Japanese relations.

"My basic opinion is that Japan's attitudes, no matter what, should not become a condition for reconciliation. I do not mean that we should forget Japanese crimes. I mean that Japan is also deeply trapped by its grave crimes, and the Japanese need our forgiveness," he wrote.

(Interestingly, the "forgive but not forget" formulation was used by former Singapore prime minister Lee Kuan Yew in 1969. Then, Mr Lee said Singapore should not let the "unhappy experiences" of Japan's wartime occupation inhibit Japan's participation in Singapore's industry.)

Mr Ge was roundly criticised by Chinese netizens, and was forced to withdraw his blog post. But his thesis is correct, and supported by other lone voices. Another well-known Beijing-based writer and political critic Yu Jie has argued that the "sign of maturity of a people is its ability to have sufficient confidence to forgive".

In the long run, Chinese and Japanese leaders need to employ some far-sighted vision. The US' so-called rebalancing towards Asia would be increasingly challenged by fiscal constraints and growing isolationism at home.

This means that over time, the world's policeman would eventually play a diminished role in the Asia-Pacific. As such, Asia would need to set up its own neighbourhood watch. The leading candidates for such an arrangement would be China and Japan.

Already, the East Asia Summit - which involves Asean and eight other countries including China and Japan - is an emerging model of the future, where the US is no longer primus inter pares.

Historic diplomatic breakthroughs always involved a rapprochement between two erstwhile adversaries.

Think Zhou Enlai's handshake with then US President Richard Nixon at Beijing Airport in 1972, or the one between Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin at the White House in 1993.

An elder Chinese statesman once said that China and Japan could not be enemies, given their geographic proximity. The two countries should work for "permanent friendship", he wrote to a Japanese leader, and "maintain the general stability of Asia and establish permanent peace and harmony between ourselves".

The writer was Li Hongzhang, a 19th century Chinese statesman, corresponding with Ito Hirobumi, Japan's four-time premier. The entreaty might have been made in 1895, but Li's words still remain prescient.