Riven by legacies of unimaginable war atrocities, decades of Japanese occupation and colonial rule, Asia’s top three economies — China, Japan and South Korea — held a meeting last week. The heads of government for the three countries met in the thriving Chinese city of Chengdu and pledged, among other things, to accelerate their long-standing free-trade negotiations.
That’s an admirable vision of peace and prosperity for nations representing a quarter of the world economy and more than $700 billion in trade transactions during 2018.
But despite the bonhomie in Chengdu, the leaders know that the way forward is strewn with obstacles left by misleading ideas that time, pragmatism and wealth creation would overcome the pain of festering wounds, humiliations and unacceptable readings of common history.
Japan remains at the center of all those difficulties. China continues to commemorate the martyrs of entire cities at the hands of Japanese World War II occupiers, while South Korea seethes at the enslavement of its people by the Japanese colonial rule and Tokyo’s alleged refusal to pay war reparations.
Apart from that, China and South Korea have running disputes with Japan about unresolved territorial claims in the East China Sea and in the Sea of Japan. The three countries take those issues as questions of principle defining their sovereignty and territorial integrity.
And yet, despite periodic dust-ups, pragmatism allowed Japan’s formidable export machine to keep its economy afloat.
It was, therefore, an unexpectedly sobering warning from Japan last week that stability in East China Sea was necessary for better ties with China — by far Tokyo’s largest trade partner.
In other words, for stable and confident Sino-Japanese relations, Tokyo was asking Beijing to renounce its territorial claims on the Senkaku (called Diaoyu by China) Islands in the East China Sea currently administered by Japan — an infuriating condition for China that considers Diaoyu as part of its inalienable ancient territory.