From the long-distance perspective of an American, Asia looks like one of the worldâ€™s most peaceful places. And it is â€” 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, itâ€™s a dull dispute over a string of uninhabited Pacific islands. Underneath, as I realized on a recent visit to China, itâ€™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 Beijingâ€™s recent declaration of an air-defense zone over the disputed islands, a string of rocks about 200 miles southeast of Chinaâ€™s coast, not far from Taiwan. No one will ever vacation on the islands, but thereâ€™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 â€” whose very name the two countries disagree about: China calls them the Diaoyu and Japan the Senkaku â€” touches one of the most sensitive nerves in Chinese culture: the Japanese occupation of China from 1937 to â€™45.
â€œIt may be hard for you to understand,â€ an expert at Beijingâ€™s Academy of Military Science told me in October, echoing several others to whom I spoke. â€œThe nationalist feeling, the emotion toward Japan, is very strong.â€
Japan doesnâ€™t seem to like China either
Japanâ€™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 â€œunfavorable feelingsâ€ of each side toward the other runs poisonously above 90%. Itâ€™s certainly hard to argue that China has done anything to Japan comparable to the 1937â€“45 occupation. But one scholar on Sino-Japanese relations argues the animus is about envy and anxiety toward the roaring Chinese dragon.