Start a virtuous cycle of Sino-Japan interactions

Japan's Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera (left) and China's People's Liberation Army deputy chief of general staff Qi Jianguo at the Shangri-La Dialogue in June 2013.

JAPAN/CHINA - At a time when Japan's relations with China cannot get any worse, the country's Defence Ministry has released a defence White Paper which has made Chinese officials and analysts go white with rage.

The lengthy tome, which is the first White Paper released by the Shinzo Abe government, commented that China's lack of clarity about the vision behind its military build-up could lead to "distrust and misunderstanding".

In addition, Chinese incursions into the waters and airspace near Japan were "dangerous acts" that could lead to "contingency situation( s)".

Understandably, the document drew much flak from China. The Global Times, the nationalist paper, said that the paper only underscored Japan's "hysteria" over China.

The paper does have a point. Although the two countries have largely lived at peace with each other for at least 2,000 years, there has been existential competition between them over the past century or so.

To China, Japan stands at the vanguard of the US "rebalance" back to Asia. Gone are previous conceptions of the US-Japanese alliance being a "bottle cap" that inhibited Japanese power; Chinese analysts now believe the alliance is an "eggshell" that facilitates the growth of Japanese power.

To Japan, China is trying to usurp the US-led order that has been laid down for the past 60 years. No wonder, Japanese soldiers stormed a Californian beach last month, in a show of force that could be applied to the two countries' dispute over the Senkaku/ Diaoyu islands.

Therein, it is easy to see how things could go pear-shaped.

In January, the Japanese alleged that a Chinese frigate had directed fire-control radar at a Japanese naval destroyer in the East China Sea - a move that the Chinese denied strenuously. One can only imagine what could happen in subsequent clashes as military commanders on the ground take things into their hands.

Things do not have to be this way. What both countries need are visionary leaders who can see the forest for the trees, and view bilateral relations from a strategic perspective.

The Nixon model

A goodexample would be Richard Nixon in 1972, when he flew to Beijing for a historic rapprochement with Mao Zedong and China.

Nixon's historic effort challenged the collective wisdom of the American foreign policy establishment, which was consumed by ideological hatred of the Chinese communists following confrontations with them in the Korean War in the early 1950s and over Vietnam in the late 1960s. The rapprochement led to a joint Sino- American bloc against the Soviet Union.

Applied to Sino-Japanese relations, the Nixon model could go along two routes.

First, the two countries can seek to shelve their current dispute over the Senkaku/ Diaoyu islands. Visiting Japan in 1978, Deng Xiaoping said that the dispute should be "set aside for a while".

Future generations, he added, would have the wisdom to carve out a mutually acceptable solution. Secondly, China and Japan should also seek to set aside their disputes over Japan's wartime history.

It is true, as China scholar William Callahan argues, that China's "century of humiliation" at the hands of the Japanese and Western powers is the "master narrative" of modern Chinese history.

That said, China should seek to rein in anti-Japanese sentiment and deal with Japan rationally. It is an open secret that the current generation of Chinese have been fed a steady diet of anti-Japanese propaganda.

Truth be told, it was in the not-so-distant past that the Chinese sought to absorb huge amounts of Japanese expertise.

Around the turn of the 19th century, Japan became China's modernising "West". Thousands of Chinese went to Japan for training and hundreds of Japanese works - some of them translated from Western sources - were translated into Chinese.

Baggage of the past

The Japanese should also seek to come clean on their wartime history. Speaking at the Shangri-La Dialogue last month, Japanese Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera provided a good model.

Before speaking about Japan's contributions to regional and global security, he invoked the spirit of the 1995 statement by then Premier Tomiichi Murayama by telling delegates that Japan had "caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries".

Indubitably, such a novel approach would be opposed by people on both sides. But history shows that past initiatives have paid dividends for bilateral relations.

When Mao Zedong met Japanese prime minister Kakuei Tanaka in 1972, Mao expressed his views with "characteristic irony".

"We must express our gratitude to Japan. If Japan didn't invade China, we could have never achieved the cooperation between the Kuomintang and the Communist Party. We could have never developed and eventually taken political power for ourselves."

The communist revolution, Mao said in half-jest, would never have happened without Japan's invasion of China.

Likewise, Mr Murayama's historic apology in 1995 led to a positive pattern in official interactions between Chinese and Japanese officials. Visiting Japanese officials affirmed the Murayama statement.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry said that the statement was a "positive gesture" on the part of the Japanese government to "deeply reflect" on Japan's wartime aggression.

A virtuous cycle

In 2003, two Chinese analysts - Ma Licheng and Shi Yinhong - proposed "new thinking" on Japan, which called for China to "overcome parochial views" of Japan and adopt a forward-looking and strategic approach to their relationship (the proposal was nuked after a storm of protests).

Imagine the virtuous cycle that would ensue, once interactions between Beijing and Tokyo ascend from the mire of kindergarten politics (I did it, because he did it first!) and are tackled from a strategic perspective.

There are constant fears about an American withdrawal from the Asia-Pacific, given ailing finances at home.

Imagine what "neighbourhood policing" by China and Japan could achieve - with Uncle Sam playing a recessed role, Beijing and Tokyo could work jointly by working together at the East Asia Summit and the ASEAN Defence Ministers' Meeting Plus Eight.

For the longest time, Mao and the Chinese Communist Party controlled the narrative of China's history for the benefit of the party.

Imagine what it would be if, for the sake of rapprochement with Japan and regional stability, China and Japan were to, as Mao once said, "use the past to serve the future".

The writer, a former Straits Times journalist, is a Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD) senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (Asia), the think-tank which organises the annual SLD.