“Asia’s Reckoning: China, Japan, and the Fate of US Power in the Pacific Century” by Richard McGregor

If you go into most bookshops in the States for example, there’s a cottage industry of books on the US and China, the US and the Middle East, you go to the UK, there’s a sort of similar cottage industry of books on the UK and France, and France and Germany. But there’s very little on Japan and China, and this is a highly consequential relationship—the world’s second and third biggest economies, Asia’s two superpowers, and with a really difficult, emotional, scarred history …

— Richard McGregor, interviewed on Charlie Rose, 6 September 2017


In his last book, The Party, Richard McGregor quotes a Beijing professor, who said, “The Party is like God. He is everywhere. You just can’t see him.” McGregor aimed to make the Communist Party of China (CPC) more visible, and most reviewers at the time and since have concluded that The Party is among the most important books about China to appear in the last decade.

Having lived in both China and Japan, and having rock-solid journalistic connections and credentials, McGregor not only noticed something missing on the retail bookshelves in the United States and Britain, he has addressed the dearth with Asia’s Reckoning—a suitably ominous title, given the subject matter. McGregor deserves our respect for making a difficult task, an exposition of the China-Japan relationship, even more daunting, by adding the third leg of the triangle, the United States, though he argues rightly that one cannot understand the first two without the third. One anecdote from the book, a description of an unplanned conversation between the PRC’s General Secretary, Hu Jintao, and Japan’s Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko, at the APEC summit in Vladivostok in August 2012, offers symbolism for which it has become famous:


Noda then took one step closer to Hu. By now, the pair were only a few inches apart, while others in the room watched transfixed. Noda pressed his point. ‘Our diplomats should be talking about this [the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands dispute]’, he said, motioning to the one aide he had with him in the room, Shinichi Nishimiya, who was slated to be Tokyo’s next ambassador to Beijing. Hu, a stiff figure at the best of times, was visibly shaking with anger by this point. He scowled and fired back, ‘Our diplomats can talk about it if you like, but don’t dare do anything that affects the islands’.


Asia's Reckoning: China, Japan, and the Fate of U.S. Power in the Pacific Century, Richard McGregor (Viking, September 2017)
Asia’s Reckoning: China, Japan, and the Fate of US Power in the Pacific Century, Richard McGregor (Viking, September 2017)

This exchange occurred just a few weeks before Japan announced that they had “nationalized” four of the islands by buying them from the previous titleholders, a Japanese family. Because Noda didn’t have a Chinese translator accompanying him, and because Hu didn’t have a Japanese translator on his side, Hu’s English translator mediated, compelling the leaders of the second and third largest economies on the planet to confront each other mediated by the language of the United States.

McGregor describes the bad timing—a dominant faction of the CPC was then engineering a transition from Hu to Xi Jinping, challenged (probably) by a faction headed by Bo Xilai and Zhou Yongkang, both of whom now repose in jail and will do so for the rest of their lives. The nationalization date also preceded by one week the anniversary of the Mukden Incident, 18 September 1931, in which the Imperial Japanese Army staged a false-flag terrorist attack as a pretext to invading Manchuria—northeast China—and thus begin the second Sino-Japanese War, which lasted for 14 years and claimed the lives of some 20 million Chinese, the vast majority civilians. Only the Soviet Union suffered more casualties during those years, though Stalin of course, and to a far lesser extent Chiang Kai-Shek, notched some impressive own-goal achievements as part of the overall totals. PRC schoolchildren have 18 September 1931 drummed into them more than, say, US schoolchildren memorize 7 December 1941.

About the explosion of street protests and such that followed Japan’s announcement, McGregor suggests that, “With people marching in upward of two hundred cities, the anti-Japanese rallies were among the most widespread demonstrations in modern Chinese history.” Those in the mainland at the time remember seeing the mobs, the signs, the burning Japanese-owned enterprises, and perhaps recall the hapless young Chinese man, driving a Japanese-branded car in Xi’an, dragged from his car and beaten into a coma and paralysis. Some may also remember that these demonstrations were far from spontaneous, rather carefully managed.


By way of text messages delivered at the directions of state security with eerie, geographic precision to mobile phones in the protest zones, the demonstrators were thanked for their patriotism, which was the authorities’ way of telling them they had made their point and could go home. ‘Can I shout “punish corruption”?’ one protester asked as he arrived at the marshaling point out near the Japanese embassy in Beijing, according to an account in a prominent Chinese magazine. ‘No!’ the police replied. ‘Only slogans concerned with the Diaoyu Islands are allowed.’


The CPC seeks, with historical reason, to keep the anti-Japanese heat turned up, but to somewhat less than a rolling boil, because mass mainland demonstrations have a habit of turning their rebellious attention upon the domestic situation, if they don’t start there, as the protester’s question above reveals. McGregor connects the dots between the 2012 protests and those of 1989, which started as a commemoration of the life of former CPC Chairman Hu Yaobang, turned into protests against inflation and for media freedom and better education, and culminated in the Tiananmen massacre, thereby informing so much of the Party’s strategy since then. 1989 became the genesis of the CPC’s anti-Japanese indoctrination campaign, a ready-to-hand tool to deflect attention from domestic issues such as rampant corruption, nepotism and oppression.

The CPC’s sense of the risk in political movements didn’t start with 1989 Tiananmen, more with protests in 1919 Tiananmen, the launching pad for the May Fourth Movement, to which the Party traces its own birth. In 2004’s A Bitter Revolution: China’s Struggle with the Modern World, Oxford historian Rana Mitter writes, “The atmosphere and political mood that emerged around 1919 are at the centre of a set of ideas that has shaped China’s momentous twentieth century.” Mao commemorated the Movement on its 20th anniversary with an op-ed acknowledging May Fourth as a watershed event in the “bourgeois-democratic revolution”.

Japan and China have been squabbling about the Senkaku/Diaoyu for a century now, though the islands gained much more interest in the 1970s, when petroleum companies discovered potential oil reserves there. The Yasukuni Shrine gained membership in the toxic list of issues between the two countries in 1978, when the private enterprise that operates it ‘enshrined’, furtively, an additional lot of war dead from World War II, including 14 Class A war criminals, so judged by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (1946-1948). While the Tokyo Trials have plausibly been called an example of victor’s justice, no one honest doubts that those judged guilty had acted horribly.


But the motley collection of issues may cause one to wonder, reasonably, why it’s only the actions of Japan that seem to cause righteous outrage throughout the region, and especially in China (and Korea too—another discussion). History provides the primary reason, says McGregor:


From the late nineteenth century onward, Japan did set out to dismember China. Although the precise numbers of casualties are still debated, the Nanjing Massacre is not an invention, as some prominent Japanese gratingly insist. Japan committed atrocities, used forced labor from its colonies to support the war effort, and oversaw the recruitment of the so-called comfort women for brothels for their soldiers.


These facts, a strong base for a negotiating position, drive part of the CPC’s stance facing Japan. But that by itself shouldn’t grant the CPC unchallenged ability to militarize the South China Sea, or to bray about Japanese textbooks, models of tempered, evidence-based prose compared to their mainland Chinese counterparts. In another interview in 2017, McGregor describes how the theocratically-inclined, history-denying wing of the Japanese polity, which includes a number of Abe’s cabinet, the governor of Tokyo and a disturbingly large number of Diet members, becomes one of the CPC’s greatest unacknowledged enablers—these delusional folks provide all the tawdry examples the CPC needs, and then some, for the CPC to cry wolf about Japanese resurgent militarism—a textbook case of the law of unintended consequences.

“Japanese militarism” is almost oxymoronic—McGregor suggests that,


For anyone who knows modern Japan, the phrase is jarringly inaccurate. Not only has defense spending rarely risen far above 1 percent of GDP in the past seventy years, but the military itself has long been relegated to a lowly status, socially and politically…


Chip Gregson, who was the [US] marine commander in Japan for four years beginning in 2001 and head of Asia policy in the Pentagon in the Obama administration, recalled being in a restaurant in Japan when one of his colleagues pointed out, ‘Look at that. There’s someone in a uniform outside, walking in the street’.


Though whatever rearming Japan now undertakes results in substantial part from their leaders’ concern about aggressive CPC militarism—a legitimate fear and a depressing irony. Nonetheless, the routine denial of the Nanjing Massacre, coupled with the claim that the Greater East Asia War (as the denialists style it) was a war of liberation and empowerment, plays excellently into the hands of the CPC, giving the Party an ongoing opportunity to shift the Overton window in the direction they favor. Imagine if Japan were to build a 3,000-meter airstrip on one of the Senkaku, as the PLA has done in the South China Sea. Imagine if Japan were to ram a foreign aircraft in international airspace, as a PLA fighter pilot, Wang Wei, did to a US EP24 in 2000. The world reaction would be swift, and China would become incandescent.

Japanese war veterans and other Japanese have done yeoman’s work investigating and publishing about Imperial Japan’s war crimes in China and elsewhere. And following the initial textbook controversy in 1982,


With a prime ministerial visit already scheduled for later that year, Tokyo backed off and promised that future textbooks would take into account prevailing sentiment in other countries in the region. It was a substantial concession from the Japanese government, which had been jolted by the angry, emotional reaction in China. For the moment, with the insertion of what the Japanese called the ‘Asian neighbors clause,’ code for agreeing to bear in mind sentiment in China and South Korea, the crisis was defused.”


Chinese who dare to investigate and report some of Mao’s murderous initiatives have been imprisoned or worse, and it’s impossible to imagine the PRC’s Ministry of Education allowing even more than one view of history in textbooks, let alone offering to consider the views of its neighboring countries.

But of course, the CPC plays a game with much higher stakes:


Perhaps the most salient factor in China’s calculations was what might happen if it should lose to Japan. In Tokyo, a military loss would be disastrous, and the government would certainly fall. But that would be nothing compared with the hammer blow to China’s national psyche should Japan prevail. ‘That would be terminal for the CCP,’ the former regional leader [cited on the previous page] observed. “Regime change’.


McGregor isn’t sanguine about the role of the third leg of the triangle. He does readers a solid service by reviewing historical aspects of US engagement with East Asia, particularly during the Nixon-Kissinger regime, that have helped spawn some of the current strife. Many recognize that the US protected or reinstated accused war criminals starting in the late 1940s, as a supposed anti-communist measure, but fewer likely know that:


Japan’s diplomatic recognition of Taiwan over the PRC resulted from a US threat not to ratify the San Francisco Peace treaty between Japan and the United States in 1951, unless Japan so recognized the former Formosa. The PRC hardly needed another reason to revile Japan, but here they were given one;


Nixon and Kissinger encouraged China to fear Japan in the 1970s, to encourage China to rely on the United States to restrain Japan, and that Nixon and Kissinger therefore laid a foundation for the fear of resurgent Japanese nationalism. That after the United States declined to notify Japan, in 1972, that Nixon would visit China, until hours before the event.


McGregor also outlines how the United States has recently destabilized the region more by default and negligence, reminding us that, “It is dangerous to build an empire, Thucydides warned. It is more dangerous to let it go.”


June Teufel Dreyer’s Middle Kingdom and the Empire of the Rising Sun (reviewed in the Asian Review of Books in April 2017) is one exception to the lacuna that McGregor identified in bookstores on both sides of the Atlantic. In it, she asserts,


… these issues [squabbles about Yasukuni visits and what they represent] are merely symptoms of an underlying problem that stretches back to the beginning of relations between the two states: the unwillingness of either China or Japan to accept the other as an equal, and the refusal of either to accept a position of inferiority to the other.


McGregor has this a bit better:


The traditional relationship of big brother China to little brother Japan was ruthlessly reversed when both countries were forced to open up under economic and military threat from the West in the mid-nineteenth century. A weak, internally divided China was “carved up like a melon,” as its history books now bitterly put it, first by multiple Western nations and then in much larger slices by Japan. With the onset of the Meiji Restoration in 1868, by contrast, Japan was transformed from a feudal society into a modern industrial state able to compete with the West with dizzying pace and skill.


The “traditional relationship”, Japan’s acceptance of a relatively inferior position to China, lasted centuries, and engendered something of a cultural version of an inferiority complex in Japan. That complex migrated westward across the East China Sea during the 19th century, where it festers still.


McGregor published The Party in 2010 and Asia’s Reckoning last year. Given his track record, McGregor’s third work, which by extrapolation may arrive six years hence, should define its category. By then we can reasonably project that the Xi era in China will have ended, that Tokyo will have hosted its second Summer Olympics in 70 years (2020), and that Beijing will have hosted China’s first Winter Olympics (2022).

But perhaps not. Xi’s machinations leading to the recent 19th Party Congress brought to power a slate of Politburo Standing Committee members, all at least 62 and therefore ineligible (by practice) to succeed Xi in 2022 because they’ll be superannuated. So some China watchers suggest that Xi is maneuvering for an unprecedented (since Mao) third full term as General Secretary, though in Mao’s case “term” has little meaning—he had for years been Secretary for Life.

And the world has seen, once before, the cancellation of a modern day Olympics—on the cusp of what became the bloodiest war in world history, in which the three deadliest combatants enforced loyalty to party/theocracy over loyalty to country or culture, a practice the CPC follows today. We may face, in just a few years, an ominous reckoning indeed.

Van Fleet’s first book, Tales of Old Tokyo, a scrapbook history of the city from 1853 to 1964, was published in 2015. His second ‘book’, Quarrelling Cousins: China and Japan from Antiquity to 2022, is appearing in modules. He serves as Director, Corporate Globalization, at the Antai College of Economics & Management, Shanghai Jiao Tong University.