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Attention China and Japan: Grow Up



6 February 2014

There is one word so far that hasn't been applied to the current, escalating arguments between Japan and China, and that word is "infantile." That the world's second and third largest economies, and two major geopolitical players, are embroiled in nasty insult matches with each other is bad enough. But the real bankruptcy of this rhetorical battle has been best illustrated by the bizarre attempts by ambassadors and agents of each country to set out their respective cases in the international "court of public opinion."

First, there's the irony of the Chinese government in particular utilizing the readership reach of newspapers like the New York Times externally while giving these papers huge problems when covering stories and getting journalists accredited within China. Beyond that, there is the tenor of the message. The acme of this was Chinese Ambassador to the UK Liu Xiaoming's quite extraordinary attempt to convey the conflict between China and Japan in terms lifted from J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter stories: "In the Harry Potter story, the dark wizard Voldemort dies hard because the seven horcruxes, which contain parts of his soul, have been destroyed. If militarism is like the haunting Voldemort of Japan, the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo is a kind of horcrux, representing the darkest parts of that nation's soul," Ambassador Li wrote on January 1 in the British paper The Telegraph.

It is barely credible that a sophisticated plenipotentiary to a major western power would live in a world where moral equivalences from the black-and-white universe of a children's story like Harry Potter have any real relevance beyond the pages of the books they are in. And yet it's tough to shake the worrying suspicion that many within the Chinese elite do see the current geopolitical situation as a "struggle" against forces of evil. No wonder the debate between China and Japan at the moment is stuck in entrenched positions and unproductive clashes over whose idea of legitimacy should be used to solve maritime issues in particular, and the grievances left over from the Second World War in general. If we are reduced to conveying key points through language like "horcruxes" and "dark parts of a nation's soul" then something has gone badly wrong.

This is not to excuse the current Japanese leadership's recent inflammatory behavior. The bottom line is that in Beijing and Tokyo the elite leaders currently in power are playing with forces of nationalism to bolster their domestic appeal. Yet these forces, if really unleashed, could be terrifying. Far from invoking Harry Potter, it might be better to talk of "War of the Worlds." An economic or even a military clash between China and Japan would throw a devastating wrench in the global engine of growth, and be terrible news for us all. Chinese and Japanese politicians and their representatives need to grow up and start speaking with some sense of responsibility and dignity.

This is a deeper issue than the historic and cultural differences that exist between China and Japan. The reality is that their respective polities are alien to each other. This point was eloquently made by a discussion between a Japanese and a Chinese representative at a conference on the Japan/China issue held in the UK just before Christmas. When asked by a Chinese academic what the "Japan dream" was in the 21st century, a former Japanese diplomat simply stated that "in a post-modernist society like Japan's we don't need our government or state to start dictating our dreams. People dream for themselves, if they want to." This commitment to modernity by Japan is also clear in their appeal to international law, rather than history, as the basis of the legitimacy of their maritime claims. It is a pity that international law at the moment is less evolved and ambiguous than it should be in finally sorting out the arguments about territory between the two nations.

If Japan is the modernist, democratic, stable nation state most believe it to be, then in many ways the moral onus on Japan is to behave irreproachably, to not dabble in symbolic clashes with China, and to stick close to the line of law, and diplomatic negotiation. Abe gave his Chinese foes easy ammunition with his visit to the Yasukuni Shine last December. The international community needs to make it clear to Japan that it has to act and speak like a great modern nation, not dabble in provocations and outmoded nationalism. As for China, its foreign affairs should be based less on Harry Potter and more on the continuing project of modernizing and reforming its polity and its global role. And no amount of appeals to Hogwarts, quidditch and horcruxes is going to help with that.


Professor Kerry Brown is the Executive Director of theChina Studies Centre.

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