The recent outbreaks of widespread anti-Japan demonstrations and sentiments in China and Japan's response to the situation have again highlighted the sweet-and-sour strategic relations between the two Asian giants.

As former Chinese premier Chou Enlai (1898-1976) is now often quoted as saying, Sino-Japanese relationships had been defined by 3,000 years of civilisational exchanges and only 50 years of conflicts. The 50 years of conflicts evidently refer to the period between the 1894-1895 First Sino-Japanese War which ended with Imperial Japan occupying and colonising Taiwan and the 1945 defeat of Imperial Japan by the Allies, which included China and the United States.

After the end of the Pacific War, while Japan submitted to American occupation and joined in an anti-communist alliance with the United States, China became communist and briefly allied itself with the former Soviet Union in the 1950s and 1960s. That defined the Cold War fault-line in Northeast Asia which also saw the division of the Korean Peninsula into the Republic of Korea (South Korea) and Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) and also the 1950-1953 Korean War.

However, after the break-up of the Sino-Soviet alliance in late 1960s and early 1970s, China forged an anti-Soviet united front with the United States to check what both China and the United States perceived to be 'Soviet expansionism'. That Sino-US united front lasted until 1991 when the former Soviet Union imploded and disintegrated.

Between 1991 and 2001, while the right-wing segments in United States, Japan and their allies began to perceive China as the next major threat to their interests and values, China itself, especially its hardliners, also reversed and reciprocated the threat perception. North Korea's nuclear ambition and Taiwan's allegedly pro-Japanese independence movement further complicated the realignment.

But, in the aftermath of the Sept 11 terrorist attacks inside the American homeland and with the US military mobilisations against global terrorism, Afghanistan and Iraq in the past four years, the global attention to the Northeast Asian situations had been diverted.

Now, the focus has returned with a big bang even though global terrorism is still believed to be lurking in the shadows.

To explore the shifting strategic relations among China, the United States and Japan in the wake of the widespread anti-Japan demonstrations in China as well as the Japan's response to the situation, malaysiakini interviewed Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia's Prof Lee Poh Ping who is a senior fellow of the university's Institute of Malaysian and International Studies and also the president of the Malaysian Association of Japanese Studies (MAJAS).

Lee has been a veteran scholar and observers of the Japanese politics and international relations in Northeast Asia for the last 30 years.

Malaysiakini: There is a perception and even strong belief that Japan is now actively attempting to forge alliances with Southeast and South Asian countries to encircle and contain China. Is it true? If not, why is there such a perception and belief? If yes, what are the reasons of Japan doing so?

If Japan is indeed attempting to forge alliances with Southeast and South Asian countries to encircle and contain China, what are its strategies and tactics? What leverages is Japan using, or could use, to achieve its strategic objective, if any, of containing China?

Given China's understanding of Japan's geo-strategic goals and geo-political strategies, in the past as well as the present, and also given China's relative increase in economic power, diplomatic skills and military strength in recent years, would Japan succeed in its strategic attempt, if any, to encircle and contain China?

Lee:

I will try to answer the three questions together. It depends on what is meant by containment. If you mean as in the Cold War, the political, security and economic isolation of China then I do not think that this is possible or that it is even the Japanese intent to do so.

Economically speaking, there was little or no economic relationship between both during the Cold War. Now both countries are so economically intertwined (Japan-China total trade in 2004 has already exceeded Japan-US total trade) that any attempt by Japan to unravel this economic relationship will cause such economic hardships that it is difficult to imagine for Japan or for that matter, China, even considering such an unraveling.

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