Xi Jinping and Shinzo Abe can lead the ‘Asian century’, if China and Japan are able to bury the past

By Chandran Nair
South China Morning Post

Chandran Nair says Xi and Abe, strong leaders of economic powerhouses, have a historic opportunity to shape the 21st century in Asia, as the US wavers. But first, they must recognise legitimate concerns and embrace the symbolic elements of Asian-style diplomacy

Donald Trump’s first visit to Asia showed the region at its best and its worst. In Japan, South Korea and China, the US president was greeted with extreme deference. From his ­address to the Korean National Assembly, to Shinzo Abe’s buddy routine, to dinner with Xi Jinping in the Forbidden City, he was treated as a political ­celebrity, and not a politician unpopular abroad and at home.

On the one hand, this shows how Asian countries continue to feel subservient to the US. Trump has criticised these countries at every turn, even during his trip earlier this month, insisting that they are taking advantage of America. In an ideal world, these countries would treat the US president with the same level of respect he has shown them.

On the other hand, we do not live in an ideal world. Although to many in the region, the visit of Trump made it clear that the United States is a diminished power, its president still wields a great deal of clout, and so Asian governments wisely “played” him. If the symbolism and flattery of a state visit is what is needed to ensure Trump listens to Asian views, and to prevent him from acting belligerently, then perhaps it’s a bitter pill that can be swallowed.

Highlights of Donald Trump’s 12-day visit to Asia

But strategic seduction still reveals a problem. If Asian stability is shaped by – or relies so much – on the US, to the point where Asian countries must bend over backwards to keep someone like Trump happy, is the status quo truly stable? Does it rely too much on the capriciousness of US politics? And is it outdated?

Even if you think America’s presence in Asia is a good thing, it is going to change, and undoubtedly get smaller. The US may bow out peacefully, or end up more like Trump: more muscular and zero-sum, where Washington doesn’t even pay lip service to “common solutions”, as it pursues “America First”.

Asians must take the lead in developing what comes next. The crux will be the relationship ­between China and Japan, which is fundamental to issues in East Asia, such as the Korean peninsula. It is time to bury the hatchet. After all, these two economic powerhouses of Asia can lead the transformation of the region if they come together as allies.

China is East Asia’s largest rising power, with a proven model of economic development and governance. Yet, many of its people remain poor, and its growth has had serious environmental repercussions. In this regard, Japan has much to offer. Also, China’s rapid rise – rightly or wrongly – is unnerving its neighbours, which Beijing sometimes seems ­blind to, and this is exploited by its detractors.

Japan is a hub for modern business and technology. It is also a symbol of peace and tranquillity. Its post-war history, investments and popular culture make it a trusted partner and an admired country.

But economic stagnation and China’s rapid rise have pushed Japan from its position as the premier Asian country. China as a good friend and ally has many upsides for Japan. Also, imagine a Japan that is engaged with the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Belt and Road Initiative, rather than pressing ahead with the formerly US-led ­Trans-Pacific Partnership, to the ­exclusion of China.

Finally, President Xi and Prime Minister Abe are the strongest leaders their countries have seen in at least a generation. After Xi’s consolidation of power at the 19th party congress, achieving a status akin to that of Mao Zedong, and Abe’s ­resounding victory at the polls, both leaders have the strength to take the first step towards an “Asian century”.

Historical antagonism should not be enough to prevent a rapprochement. After all, France and Germany were able to come together as partners a few decades after the most devastating war ­between them. The Paris-Berlin relationship now defines Europe – even more so now, after Brexit.

Why can’t a relationship between Tokyo and Beijing do the same for Asia? One clear difference is that France and West Germany were both US allies, and so friendship between them did not threaten Washington. The same would not be true of a friendship between China and Japan. And therein lies the rub.

Xi Jinping says a stable China-Japan relationship will benefit Asia and the world

This is where Abe and Xi, both newly strengthened, have a historic opportunity to shape the course of the 21st century in Asia. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity and they must seize it.

To do so, both sides will need to accept the other’s legitimate interests and concerns. A recent example is the understanding between Seoul and Beijing, ­announced just before Trump’s trip, concerning the US-provided THAAD missile defence system.

By dropping the issue, Beijing probably recognised that South Korea feels genuinely threatened by the North, and needs something to defend against the worst. Yet, Seoul recognised that Beijing’s worry about being encircled warranted a promise that THAAD was not the first step towards a trilateral America-Japan-South-Korea alliance.

For China and Japan to come together, each has to accept that the other has legitimate concerns. Beijing needs to give up its anger over the second world war. It must also offer some kind of guarantee in ­exchange for Japan loosening its agreement with the US. And Tokyo must accept that its strong American ties hinder its ability to act as an honest broker in East Asia and prevent its rise as a central and independent player in the region. It must understand that, to Beijing, a neighbour, Tokyo’s relationship with Washington, a distant ally, appears to be a threat.

China rolls out the red carpet for Donald Trump

Finally, both sides will need to seriously embrace the symbolic elements of Asian-style diplomacy.

Sometimes pejoratively called “giving face”, it is an understanding that countries, governments and populations want to be treated seriously, shown great respect and, importantly, not bullied or insulted in the international arena. If the Vietnamese can roll out the red carpet for the US president, the Chinese can do the same for the Japanese, and vice versa.

Reciprocal visits by Xi and Abe should have all the pomp and circumstance of Trump’s visit. They may be the turning point that the region needs at the outset of “the Asian century.”

Chandran Nair is founder and CEO of the Global Institute For Tomorrow

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: bury the past