By Abhishek Jha:Â
Harvard professor Graham Allison coined the term Thucydides’s Trap (also known as the Thucydidean Trap) to describe a situation that presents itself when a “rising power rivals a ruling power“. As the Japanese Prime Minister and the Chinese President shook hands, this rivalry was palpable in the stiff manner in which the Xi-Abe greeting took place. We have seen China rise phenomenally to the global centre-stage on the back of its economic growth and military expansion over the last few decades. While this ascent to power attracts the attention of all global super-powers, Japan might have more than a little to fear. As Allison points out in his article, such powers- in their mutual reluctance to face each other- could only nurture disaster. Thus, this meeting assumes special significance not only for these two countries but for the whole world. Here’s an analysis of the importance of this meeting.
War Atrocities: The two Sino-Japanese Wars (1894-1895 and 1937-1945 respectively), despite their different outcomes, had the Chinese people suffer terribly at the hands of the Japanese, with the Japanese soldiers indulging in massacre, rape, sexual slavery, and looting. An estimated 20,000 women were raped and 3,00,000 people killed in the second Sino-Japanese War despite Japan surrendering at the end of the war. Japan’s reluctance to acknowledge these war atrocities and offer reparations has always stymied conversation between the two countries. The Chinese state press agency, Xinhua, continues to highlight visits to the Yasukuni shrine by members of the Japanese government as insincerity on the part of the Japanese towards developing friendly ties with its neighbour. Although the Japanese have assisted in the Chinese development and hence shirk any further demand for war reparations- the Chinese themselves agreeing to an end to demand for war reparations, the persisting sense of injustice stemming from allegedly inaccurate Japanese history textbooks and the aforesaid visits has prevented any meaningful talk.
The Senkaku/Diaoyu islands: This is one of the most contentious issues where China and Japan are at loggerheads. Both parties lay historical claim to the islands. Petroleum reserves in the region imply that neither of the two economic superpowers is ready to back down from the fight. While Japan claims that it has acquired the islands in agreement with international law, China refutes such claims by pointing to unjust and unequal treatises signed at the time of the first Sino-Japanese war and the history of the islands prior to the war. Both countries make elaborate arguments regarding the same.
The APEC meeting is a welcome move as the issue of the islands had escalated further with the purchase of disputed territory from private Japanese owners in 2012. The Chinese government cried foul over the purchase and even sent two maritime law enforcement ships for surveillance(Source). It is also speculated that the increase in Chinese fishermen in the area is a new tactic by the Chinese to keep an eye on Japanese activity without having to resort to military surveillance, thereby creating a faux calm. This is in addition to the Chinese fishermen who have been accused of illegal poaching near the Ogasawara islands.
It is not hard to note that like all debates, this one is hard to settle. Arguments will always have counter-arguments. The meeting per se becomes important, not because the debate might finally “be won” but because it acknowledges that it has no end. While the debates might continue, fanning nationalist fervour or antagonising rivals is not likely to put them out of the aforesaid Thucydidean trap that might reduce them, if not their histories.
The meeting that took place in the backdrop of the APEC summit can be at best described as symbolic, with the major discussion having taken place already between diplomats from the two countries. On the 7th of November, they consented to a four-point agreement based on “four basic bilateral documents”. The agreement as reported by Xinhua reads as follows:
“– The two sides have affirmed that they will follow the principles of the four political documents reached between China and Japan and continue to develop the China-Japan strategic relationship of mutual benefit.
— In the spirit of “facing history squarely and looking forward to the future,” the two sides have reached some agreement on overcoming political obstacles in the bilateral relations.
— The two sides have acknowledged that different positions exist between them regarding the tensions which have emerged in recent years over the Diaoyu Islands and some waters in the East China Sea, and agreed to prevent the situation from aggravating through dialogue and consultation and establish crisis management mechanisms to avoid contingencies.
— The two sides have agreed to gradually resume political, diplomatic and security dialogue through various multilateral and bilateral channels and to make efforts to build political mutual trust.”
While Japan hopes that China will put the past behind, the Xinhua continued to jab at Japan’s reluctance to agree to a historical narrative in agreement with the sentiments of the Chinese people. Abe on the other hand said that he will walk in the same direction of acknowledgement as his predecessors. One significant outcome of the meeting though was their agreement to create a liaison mechanism to prevent matters relating to the Senkaku islands from snowballing into warfare. This should prevent any further suspension of dialogue between the countries should a situation of conflict and confrontation arise near those islands.
Since these countries are interdependent- China needing technical expertise and Japan the cheap labour and raw materials- for the growth of their economies, it is important that the military rivalry is shunned. Japan’s recent willingness to deviate from its pacifist constitution to intervene in international disputes and become an active military power keeps China on its toes. If Japan goes down that path, China will lose all hope of ever regaining the territory that it wants to claim. On the other hand, the growing power of China makes Japan fear for retribution. The veil of mutual distrust can be removed only when politically insignificant flaring is put to rest. In cognizance of this fact, it is important that these discussions continue and do not arrive- like the owl of Minerva- at dusk.