By DANIEL SNEIDER
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
The relationship between the two Asian giants, Japan and China, is becoming increasingly dysfunctional. A barely civil snarling is now the norm between these neighbors. It is alarming everyone else in the region, from Singapore up to Korea.
Even when they try to make up, Japan and China manage to stumble right back into old patterns.
That was visible last week in the visit of Chinese Vice Premier Wu Yi to Japan. The trip had been carefully arranged to repair the damage done by a recent wave of violent anti-Japanese protests in China. The protests were orchestrated by the Chinese government, supposedly in response to Japan's lack of remorse over World War II.
In April the Chinese and Japanese leaders finally met and agreed to lower the heat.
Instead Wu's trip further inflamed relations. Only a few hours before a scheduled meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, the visiting Chinese official abruptly left the country. Initially the Chinese claimed she had to leave to deal with an emergency back home.
Japanese officials were left fuming about the insult. To add to the controversy, Chinese officials then made it clear the cancellation was a deliberate snub to Koizumi.
The Chinese were angered when Koizumi told the Japanese parliament, just before the Vice Premier's arrival, that he would continue his controversial visits to Yasukuni, a shrine to Japan's war dead. Chinese, Koreans and other victims of Japan's wartime aggression object to such visits because the shrine's list of war dead includes a handful who were convicted by the Allies as war criminals.
Yasukuni symbolizes -- for many Japanese as well -- Japan's unwillingness to come to terms with its wartime past. But it has also become a point of pride, of standing up to what many Japanese see as Chinese bullying.
"Naturally, every country wants to remember and honor its war dead," Koizumi told the parliament. "It is not right for other countries to meddle and tell us how we should go about it."
Some analysts believe that the incident was carefully planned by Beijing. They point to clear appeals made by Chinese leaders -- and by Wu during her visit -- to Japanese business leaders. The unsubtle message from the Chinese is that the massive Japanese business ties to China are jeopardized by the policies of their own government.
The Chinese leadership is trying to play politics inside Japan, giving indirect support to the opposition Democratic Party and would-be successors of Koizumi in the ruling party who are critical of his handling of relations. Japanese opinion polls show that a majority of Japanese also oppose the visits to Yasukuni, though they also overwhelmingly criticize China for its recent anti-Japanese acts.
Japanese government officials privately dismiss the idea that the snub was planned. If anything, some officials seem to point a finger at the prime minister for not holding his tongue at a crucial moment. Even after making his initial remarks, Japanese officials told me, the Chinese still seemed ready to go ahead with the meeting. But when Koizumi repeated his views again May 20, after Wu had arrived, that proved to be too much to swallow.
Having revved up anti-Japanese nationalism in China, the Chinese leadership was almost compelled to prove they were not going soft. "Koizumi's comment while Wu Yi was in town ensured that the Chinese would have to respond -- and they did," a former senior U.S. official with long experience in Asia told me.
Both governments now appear contrite and eager to dampen the latest controversy. Hopefully they will do that quickly. But there are underlying frictions at work here that will not go away.
Ultimately, Yasukuni is not the real issue for China, nor are similar controversies over how Japanese textbooks handle the war. This is how the Chinese try to create sympathy for themselves as they seek to assert their dominance over East Asia. Japan, and its claim to power in the region, sits squarely in the path of that Chinese ambition.
The United States, as Japan's ally and a Pacific power, cannot simply watch this from afar. Making sure this clash of national ambitions does not deepen into something far more dangerous should be a central concern of American foreign policy. It is time to pay attention.
X Daniel Sneider is foreign affairs columnist for the San Jose Mercury News. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune.