China and Japan's Simmering Rivalry

Courtesy Reuters


China and Japan, the giants of Asia, account for nearly three-quarters of the region's economic activity and more than half of the region's military spending. Despite their deep economic ties and a doubling of their bilateral trade in the past five years, their relationship is increasingly strained, with dangerous implications for the United States and the world at large.

Historically, relations between Japan and China were clearly structured. One country was always more prosperous or powerful than the other. Before the nineteenth century, China was usually dominant; since the Meiji Restoration, in 1868, Japan has generally been preeminent. The prospect that China and Japan could both be powerful and affluent at the same time has only recently emerged, largely because while China's economy and influence have grown rapidly, Japan's have remained stagnant. China has nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles, and its military budget has grown by double-digit rates for 17 consecutive years. Although Japan has a relatively low military profile, with its "no-war" constitution and strong alliance with the United States, its defense-relevant technology is sophisticated and it has recently become more proactive. The stage is now set for a struggle between a mature power and a rising one.

Some liken current Sino-Japanese relations to the Anglo-German rivalry prior to World War I. As with the United Kingdom and Germany a century ago, the contest for regional leadership between China and Japan today is creating new security dilemmas, prompting concerns over Chinese ambitions in Japan and fears of renewed Japanese militarism in China. Both states are adopting confrontational stances, partly because of rising popular involvement in politics and resurgent nationalism exacerbated by revived memories of World War II; mutually beneficial economic dealings alone are not effectively soothing these tensions. Fluid perceptions of power and fear, Thucydides observed, are the classic causes of war. And they are increasingly present in Northeast Asia today.


Many contentious issues confront China and Japan. Among the most pressing is their thirst

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