RELATIONS between China and Japan have deteriorated sharply in the past few weeks, including widespread, sometimes violent demonstrations against Japan across China. This definitely qualifies as bad news.
Trouble between the world's most populous country, China, and the world's second largest economy, Japan, is not healthy in terms of overall prospects for peace in East Asia, a matter of considerable interest to the United States as well.
The Japanese feel wronged, and Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura traveled to China last week to ask for an apology and reimbursement for damage to Japanese property in China - which he did not get.
Chinese mobs in cities across the country, including Beijing, the capital, have mounted marches against Japan over the past two weeks, taking violent action against Japanese government offices, banks, shops, and restaurants. Such demonstrations do not take place in China without at least government acquiescence and even organization.
Several issues define the current unpleasantness, one of the them stirred up by Bush Administration action.
The first is a very old issue, the portrayal in Japanese school textbooks of Japanese military actions against China in the 1930s and 1940s. The Japanese ripped into China before and during World War II; the nature of their barbarism in carrying out that enterprise is best captured in The Rape of Nanking, a famous book by Iris Chang. The current problem is that recently published Japanese textbooks play down the atrocities significantly, to the fury of the Chinese.
The second problem is more mundane, but nonetheless sensitive. China and Japan have rival claims to islands in the East China Sea which may have important reserves of oil and natural gas on the seabed under them. Japan announced last week that its companies would begin exploratory drilling in the disputed waters.
Chinese economic growth is running at 8 percent to 9 percent and its growing appetite for oil has been a major element in pushing up the world price.
The third issue is inflammatory also. At the United States' prompting Japan issued a statement a few weeks ago, in the context of new Chinese legislation regarding Taiwan, that it supports the U.S. position with respect to China's intentions toward Taiwan.
In general China is like a bear with a sore behind on the subject of Taiwan; in general the Japanese understand that fact and keep quiet about Taiwan. In quest of support on the Taiwan issue, especially with U.S. forces stretched thin through the commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Bush Administration was looking for expressions of support from other countries, particularly in Asia, in defense of Taiwan in the face of Chinese threats.
Japan obliged; China hit the roof. China made it clear, among other matters, that it would resolutely oppose Japan's permanent membership in the U.N. Security Council, of which it is now the only Asian permanent member.
Japan has had its heart set on that achievement for many years. So where is this going? The world can only hope nowhere, and that the two East Asian powers will soon calm down and climb down. Both are enormous economic powers.
China is a growing military power. Japan could become one if it felt seriously threatened by its neighbor in the region, in spite of its firm post-World War dedication to peaceful resolution of issues.
None of this quarrel is to the advantage of the United States. The Bush Administration quickly needs to make clear to both sides at a high level that, although we understand their strong feelings on the points of difference, peace in the region and in the world will not benefit from any further escalation of tensions between them.
Drawing Japan into the Taiwan affair was a mistake. It is important to let Japan take that issue between China and itself off the table.