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August 7, 2004

Sino-Japanese Grudge Match


by Sascha Matuszak

Tomorrow's Asia Cup Final football match between China and Japan promises to be an extremely tense event. Throughout the Asia Cup, the Chinese team has played in Beijing. Sold out crowds in the capital are thirsty for a victory after China's ignominious World Cup appearance and they have brought a flag for every second fan to urge their team on to a championship that means much more to China then mere fun and games.

Large international sports events are a useful way to channel Chinese national sentiment while also enhancing China's international image. The ability to host Formel 1 in Shanghai, the Asian Cup all over the nation and the Olympics four years from now highlights China's economic development and logistical capabilities.

In this particular case, it provides China with an opportunity to assume the throne as top (football) dog in Asia by defeating Public Enemy #1, the Japanese devils.

The word Rebenren (Japanese person), doubles as an insult in China. In today's China, where loving one's country is a prerequisite for being a good Chinese, hating Japan looks good on the resume.

And there are a few good reasons for Chinese to hold a grudge:

As many as 300,000 civilians murdered during the sack of Nanjing. Countless civilians murdered and experimented upon during the occupation of Northeast China. All around rampant killing and bombing during WWII.

A lot of countries suffered under Japanese occupation during WWII, some countries have chosen to forgive and forget, others not. China, once the Mecca for Japanese scholars, warriors and artists hoping to study and improve – especially during the Sui and Tang Dynasties – the War Against Japanese Aggression has neither been forgiven nor forgotten.

For many Chinese, the fact that a "former student" – a country "colonized" by the mythical 500 virgins and 500 heroes ostensibly searching for the Flower of Immortality -- invaded and brutally massacred millions of Chinese, seized Taiwan during the first Sino-Japanese War, still refuses to apologize or print textbooks to China's satisfaction, continuously pays homage to war criminals and routinely trounces the Chinese football team in every international meeting thus far makes this upcoming match a test of China's national worth.

A culmination of all that China is and strives to be! A rite of passage for all Chinese without which the entire nation will collapse in paralysis and self-doubt!

The Real Deal

Sino-Japanese ties are, unfortunately for football fans around the nation, a little more complex. High-level rhetoric concerning the Yasukuni Shrine, the Diaoyutai islands and WWII atrocities hide a flourishing economic relationship that includes millions in Japanese aid per year.

Japan was the first nation to offer developmental aid to China, in 1979, under the Official Development Assistance program – perhaps due to China's refusal to accept war reparations from Japan. Under Deng Xiao Ping, Sino-Japanese ties warmed dramatically, especially in the financial realm, with ODA reaching $1.4 billion at the time of Deng's death. Japan's ODA became politicized after 2003 and aid to China was cut in half, from $1.85 billion in 1999 to $925 million in 2003. A move that brought harsh criticism from Beijing.

The ODA tussle was brought about by Japan's attachment of human rights and arms qualifications for aid recipients and China's rise from staggering behemoth in 1979 to flexing behemoth in 2004.

The two nations, incidentally, traded $133 billion in goods and services last year, up 31% from 2002. Japanese exports to China have risen by 42% yearly, while imports have risen by more than 20%. The Chinese see this trend continuing upwards, fueling Japan's economic recovery and China's technological development. Japan is China's largest trading partner and China is Japan's second largest, after the US.

The Raw Deal

In a study entitled "The Limits Of Economic Interdependence:Sino-Japanese Relations" Michael Yahuda argues that the role of the US in a post-Cold War Asia has a significant effect on Sino-Japanese political and social rapprochment. Yahuda also notes that all this economic activity has still not produced groups in either nation willing to pursue any increase in cooperation of friendship beyond business circles. There are no mechanisms in place to allow for regular high-level talks and old problems such as North Korea and Taiwan remain unresolved.

And strangely enough, this seems to suit the US.

Chalmers Johnson describe in his book Blowback how the US is directly responsible for Japan's economic miracle: the US exchanged virtually unfettered access to its markets for Japan's huge state-owned companies in exchange for a ring of bases and the promise that Japan would never pick up a weapon again.

With China absorbing more and more Japanese FDI and exports and US soldiers pulling more and more stupid stunts in Japan, the deal made after WWII is starting to look sour to the Japanese.

The US is determined to keep its bases in Asia. With Japan as its main ally (Great Britain-style) in Asia, China can't help but see Japan as a tool of US "hegemonic" interests in the region. Japan's participation in the US TMD program after North Korea fired a satellite/missile over Japan also has Beijing jumping – anticipating a containment policy similar to the one the US utilized against the USSR after X's famous essay.

According to Johnson, chief amongst US policy blunders is the continued stalemate with North Korea and the security problems a starving, well-armed and strategically situated Stalinist country poses for its neighbors. The tension between the US and North Korea is driving Japan up the wall – crazy enough to latch on to a missile defense program with dubious test results and giving China ample reason to suspect both the US and Japan of using North Korea to weaken China's influence and further militarize Northeast Asia.

On the other hand, any independent move by Japan, such as the Self-Defense Forces in Iraq, is met with stern Chinese disapproval. And China's reliance on nationalism is worrying to a nation like Japan, with first-hand knowledge of what extreme nationalism can drive people to do.

Blowback is what we may all be experiencing if the two Asian powers keep ratcheting up the emotion and the (current) superpower doesn't rethink certain provocative policies. This time, though, it may just be a bar brawl after the match.

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  • Sascha Matuszak is a freelance writer living in Chengdu.

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