Cooler heads needed in Asia

Chinese and Japanese leaders must have an open dialogue about their underlying divisions.

Even the casual student of Chinese history knows spontaneous demonstrations are rare in a communist country. So when thousands of protesters took to the streets of nearly a dozen Chinese cities several weeks ago, it was easy to see the anti-Japanese protests had the government’s tacit approval.

In fact, China has stoked the flames of increasing popular anger against Japan. That anger and the adept maneuvering of Chinese officials come in response to the recent approval by Japan of textbooks many say give short shrift to Japanese atrocities committed against the Chinese during World War II.

Like most episodes of international tension, the diplomatic row between China and Japan also stems from underlying strategic and political conflicts. Those deeper differences make it even more important for officials in both countries to tone down their rhetoric and let cooler heads prevail. The backdrop for the current conflict includes Japan’s ongoing bid to join the U.N. Security Council and the recent decision by Japanese officials to join the United States in supporting a peaceful settlement to China’s conflict with Taiwan. To make matters worse, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has paid repeated visits to the Yasukuni Shrine for Japan’s wartime dead, as have a number of Japanese legislators in recent days.

China and Japan are playing a high-stakes game of chicken that could quickly spin out of control. Thankfully, both governments are now seeming to realize the need for a new kind of approach. China has finally begun to crack down on protest organizers. For his part, Koizumi offered a public apology last week for Japan’s history of territorial aggression.

Those moves give Japanese and Chinese officials the opportunity to focus a dialogue on deeper divisions over natural resources, economic influence and military strength in the Asia-Pacific region. As China further develops its economy, conflict between the two nations will continue to simmer. World leaders, including President George W. Bush and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, should not hesitate to publicly prod China and Japan toward a peaceful dialogue.