While Japan’s percentage of global GDP is shrinking and its proportion of public debt to GDP is ballooning since the high days of the 1980s, Tokyo seems uncertain about its future and some may be tempted to copy the past for the time ahead.
In the past century, after the Meiji reform that overhauled the country institutions and economy, Japan became a major regional power, defeating its two first rivals — China (in 1895) and Russia (in 1905) — trying eventually to become the only local power with World War II. After being defeated in the war, for over half a century it assumed the destiny of the local extension of the American superpower until the rise of China and its progressive warm up to America de facto challenged this role.
Things changed with the gradual cooling between US and China in 2010, as Washington cautiously sided against Beijing in both the Chinese-Japanese controversy over the Senkaku and in the South China Sea.
Yet a growing tension around China creates double jeopardy. Everybody is scared of China either being a bully or breaking apart; Japan might then, in this situation, be able to do something that no other country can.
Can Japan be a guide for China’s difficult economic, political, and cultural development? Perhaps this is one of the biggest questions at the root of the present controversies surrounding China on its “eastern front” from North Korea to the South China Sea. And here might also be the key to the future role of Japan in the world.
At the turn of the 20th century, China learned modernity from Japan. The idea of reform of the empire, led by Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao in 1898, stemmed from the Japanese Meiji reform. From “philosophy” to “library,” the whole vocabulary of modernity, importing into Chinese thought the way of seeing reality in the West, was wholesale taken in from the Japanese. Writers like Lu Xun, who shaped modern Chinese thought and literature, studied and were inspired by their permanence in Japan.
That is to say, yes, Japan fought and beat the Manchu Empire in 1894–1895, wresting Taiwan and Korea from it, but Japan also guided thousands of Chinese intellectuals on the path to change their country.
From this position, perhaps only Tokyo can tell Beijing it must not emulate the Japanese experience in the 1930s. Then Japan was consumed by achieving complete hegemony over Asia and pushing America and the European powers away from the region. Japan failed in this miserably, and today so would China or any other country in Asia trying to repeat that history.
In the 1930s, Japan wanted to conquer China roughly as the Machu did around the middle of the 17th century and become the hegemon of Asia driving out the Western powers which had come to Asia in the middle of the 19th century and had contributed to the Chinese Empire. Yet the Manchu succeeded because they fought only one war at the time, concentrated on conquering China, and gave up Siberia to Russia, which then was just expanding to the east.
Still unlike America in the early 1930, Russia in the 17th century was not very strong in the east at the time and in no position to challenge the Manchu conquest of China. Moscow was de facto just trying to occupy a long-abandoned wasteland north of the ancestral Manchu homeland.
The Japanese faced much bigger enemies when they tried to vanquish China. While they were still very busy with the occupation of China, they mounted an attack against the US that forced them to fight on two fronts. The Japanese might have thought they had in Mao Zedong their own Li Zicheng, the rebel who in 1644 overthrew the Ming emperor and pushed loyalist Ming generals to seek the help of Manchu forces. However, unlike the fight between loyalist Ming generals and Li’s rebels that gave the Manchu a road to power, it was the rebel Mao who emerged in the struggle between the invader and the incumbent authority of the Nationalists of the KMT.
The important difference in the two historical circumstances, as we saw, is that for the Manchu, Russia was far away and had little clout; for the Japanese, the US had great clout. Presently not only does the US still have great force, but unlike previous two precedents, countries in the region are actively coalescing against the potential territorial ambitions of China.
Moreover, the 19th-century idea of exclusive areas of influence was already aging 80 years ago, and it is very old now. China trades with and is rightly concerned about affairs in Latin America, once the US’s backyard and forbidden to outsiders. China’s involvement in affairs abroad is bound to grow everywhere in the world with the growth of its power and economy. It is impossible to think that any single country could then dominate an area like East Asia, ruling out for instance America. If that were about to happen, all other countries in the region would join against the ambitious new power.
In a way, this is what is happening around the South China Sea. At a time when ambitious China was growing fast and tried to actively claim its position in the contested waters and islands, all coalesced with America to oppose the Chinese claims.
Certainly, this kind of ambition, to establish a Chinese area of influence in Asia, depends on Beijing’s political calculations and ambitions. But Tokyo is in a special position to tell the Chinese its bitter experience of the time and help Beijing to shed similar hegemonic temptations while also cleansing Tokyo’s political blood from memories that could always come back. In this, Japan could become the paragon and moral guide for peaceful and successful modernization in China and the rest of Asia.
The current circumstances are still far more complex from those of 80 years, but Japan can draw from its experience and help China understand this history and thus avoid costly mistakes. In so doing, it will have gained an important political and cultural role in Asia and a future for the country different from the repeat of being an unsinkable aircraft carrier.
In so doing Tokyo will have also served the interests of the US, the rest of Asia, the world of China, and itself, creating a new future for Japan as the linchpin of peace and development in Asia by channeling China’s peaceful rise.