TOKYO — London isn’t usually the place to look for clues about rising tensions between China and Japan. But a surreal diplomatic tit-for-tat there speaks volumes about the fast-deteriorating situation in northeast Asia.
The dustup between the Chinese and Japanese ambassadors to Britain started with a Jan. 1 op-ed in the Daily Telegraph by China’s Liu Xiaoming. The envoy blasted Shinzo Abe’s Dec. 26 visit to Yasukuni Shrine, accusing the Japanese prime minister of putting the world on a "perilous path." Then, Liu got downright theatrical, comparing modern Japan to Lord Voldemort, the villain of Harry Potter fame.
Keiichi Hayashi, Tokyo’s man in London, responded Monday, charging that Beijing is the real baddie. "There are two paths open to China," Hayashi wrote in the Daily Telegraph. "One is to seek dialogue, and abide by the rule of law. The other is to play the role of Voldemort in the region by letting loose the evil of an arms race and escalation of tensions."
It’s tempting to roll one’s eyes at this over-the-top rhetorical tiff. But the exchange is a troubling sign, and one that raises questions about whether commercial ties will be enough to prevent Asia’s two big powers from sliding toward outright conflict.
The common view was fleshed out by Richard Katz in a Dec. 30 piece in Foreign Affairs, which carried the headline Why Chinese-Japanese Economic Relations Are Improving. To Katz, publisher of the New York-based Oriental Economist Report, the controversy over Abe’s visit to the shrine honouring 14 Class A war criminals along with Japan’s war dead is a sideshow. In reality, economic links between the two countries have grown too important to disrupt. "China," Katz writes, "has started to delink economics from politics," realizing it needs Japan’s money as much as Japan needs China’s markets.
I’m not so sure that’s enough to cap tensions, and Abe’s thoughtless Yasukuni jaunt is only part of the story. China’s President Xi Jinping was himself under great public pressure to take a hard line on Japan well before Abe’s visit to the shrine. Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao was widely seen as too soft on Japan. By contrast, Xi scored huge points at home in late November by declaring a new air-defence identification zone over islands claimed by Japan. There’s every reason to think the Chinese leader will continue to play the Japan card as he embarks on a series of risky domestic reforms.
Abe, too, has reason to escalate tensions. Reviving the economy is merely a lever the premier is using to open a Pandora’s box of political changes. Take the push to scrub school textbooks of anything nationalists feel shines a harsh light on Japan’s past. Abe also is wooing "third force" politicians — those outside the two main parties — to gain support for rewriting Japan’s pacifist constitution.
To fulfill their reform pledges, Abe and Xi will need broad support from their political establishments — the very constituencies with the most to lose. As challenges mount, the temptation to lash out internationally will increase. For Xi, no better target exists than Japan, China’s wartime colonizer. Abe can easily exploit fears that China is becoming a bullying hegemon.
Beijing’s new air-defence zone raises the odds that things will come to blows. Never before have so many Japanese and Chinese ships and airplanes trolled the seas and the skies simultaneously (along with the odd American vessel). The risk of accidents or miscalculations that lead to gunfire is rising by the day, along with the level of animus. Such hatred tends to veer into the irrational.
That brings us back to Harry Potter. Diplomatic metaphors matter, especially in our 24/7 news-cycle world. Using such a heavy one — and without apparent reprimand on either the Chinese or Japanese sides — betrays the level of hostility in north Asia. Trite as it may sound, a diplomat essentially calling another nation evil, a "Dark Lord" that everyone wants vanquished, according to J.K. Rowling’s books, is a bit much.
Look, as irresponsible as Abe’s priorities have been and as ham-handedly as Xi’s diplomatic efforts have gone, neither leader has transformed his government into a "raging psychopath, devoid of the normal human responses to other people’s suffering," as Rowling once described Voldemort to Entertainment Weekly. This isn’t the 1940s, 1950s or 1960s — the days of Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong are long over.
That hasn’t stopped two diplomats from using wildly undiplomatic language to characterize Japan and China — and getting away with it. Anyone who thinks trade and economic cooperation can save Asia from a bad ending is living in a fantasy world with Harry Potter.
William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist.