From the long-distance perspective of an American, Asia looks like one of the world’s most peaceful places. And it is — for the moment. But when Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Tokyo on Monday, he stepped into what has suddenly become a dangerous diplomatic crisis between China and Japan. On the surface, it’s a dull dispute over a string of uninhabited Pacific islands. Underneath, as I realized on a recent visit to China, it’s a story reaching back some 75 years that involves war, brutality, rape and historical reckoning. And now threatens to drag in the U.S.
The immediate cause of the crisis is Beijing’s recent declaration of an air-defense zone over the disputed islands, a string of rocks about 200 miles southeast of China’s coast, not far from Taiwan. No one will ever vacation on the islands, but there’s a good incentive to claim them, given that they sit in an area of the Pacific that may contain enough oil to fuel China for 45 years.
Far more than a story about energy, however, this is a story about national pride and historical grievance. The showdown over the islands — whose very name the two countries disagree about: China calls them the Diaoyu and Japan the Senkaku — touches one of the most sensitive nerves in Chinese culture: the Japanese occupation of China from 1937 to ’45.
“It may be hard for you to understand,” an expert at Beijing’s Academy of Military Science told me in October, echoing several others to whom I spoke. “The nationalist feeling, the emotion toward Japan, is very strong.”
Japan doesn’t seem to like China either
Japan’s recent militarization is driven, in part, because the feeling is mutual: polling shows that the animus in Japan toward China runs about as high as it does on the other side of the East China Sea. The “unfavorable feelings” of each side toward the other runs poisonously above 90%. It’s certainly hard to argue that China has done anything to Japan comparable to the 1937–45 occupation. But one scholar on Sino-Japanese relations argues the animus is about envy and anxiety toward the roaring Chinese dragon.