On the NYT Editorial Page, a Swing and a Miss

The New York Times today took a whack at what Abe Shinzo should do as the new prime minister of Japan. The editorial is both reasonable and unambitious in urging Abe to work toward better relations with China and other nearby states. It ends:

Japan has a great deal to be proud of, including an increasingly vital democracy, a revived economy and the difficult but necessary economic reforms that Mr. Koizumi began to push through and that Mr. Abe will now need to take further. It does not need to glorify the darkest period of its recent history and the war criminals most responsible for that terrible aberration.

But on the way to a reasonable conclusion, the Times loses its way. Regarding Chinese anti-Japan sentiment, the editorial says “an ugly, but increasingly distant, history of Japanese aggression and war crimes stands in the way.” While all history is technically increasingly distant as time passes, history is only distant when it ceases to maintain a prominent position in popular consciousness. Japanese aggression is not distant in China; it is reinforced in the public sphere by the CCP, as Peter Hays Gries writes in China’s New Nationalism. This editorial would have us believe history is declining in importance.

Or would it? The writer still finds space to criticise Japanese textbooks for inaccurately reflecting the nation’s war aggression, despite the fact that most of the headlines coming out of the Japanese textbook controversy surround a book almost no one uses.

I wish the Times were more careful with its words when taking this essentially reasonable stand.

James McGregor on How the U.S. Misunderstands China

“After two decades of on-the-ground experience investing billions of dollars and employing millions of people in China, the U.S. business community is far ahead of politicians in understanding the Chinese government and people,” writes James McGregor in a column someone posted on Danwei. It’s a bit of a polemic, and it claims knowledge of what a monolithic “they” (Chinese) think, but two anecdotes of U.S. media and political misunderstanding of China are worth repeating.

From the political side, Henry Kissinger, who is said to be generally respected in China because he has respected China since the Nixon years, seems to believe in the unilinear ascent of all countries toward democracy. McGregor writes:

At a lunch I hosted to bring Henry Kissinger together with young Chinese entrepreneurs, he looked around the table and asked: “Now that we have such impressive economic progress in China when and how do you envision democracy developing?” They looked at him, aghast. Finally, one answered for the group: “Do we want to destroy all the progress China has made?”

To the extent that Kissinger is still an influential figure in Washington, this doesn’t bode well for U.S. understanding of China. It puts China in a category with all non-democratic states and seems to gloss over the subtleties that Kissinger most likely understands—this in favor of a democracy-without-understanding principle that shares roots with the Bush administration’s neo-conservatism.

The other anecdote is perhaps unsurprising for people who know how media organizations work, but it’s consistently aggravating for people who chase truth outside of three-minute segments. He writes:

During a book tour that took me to many American broadcast outlets in the past year the producers invariably asked: “Are you our anti-China or our pro-China guest?” They were baffled when I answered that I was the “let’s-try-to-understand-China guest.” Our TV screens may be in color, but discussions of China are exclusively in black and white.

U.S.–China Interparliamentary Exchange: Valuable, and Possibly Easier Under Democrats

The main organizer of the U.S.-China Interparliamentary Exchange said Sept. 6 he won’t be completely disappointed if his party loses control of the U.S. Congress in November. Even though House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) created and funded the exchange, “it would be even easier with the Democrats in charge, though I pray against that,” said Matthew Szymanski, chief of staff for the House Committee on Small Business and the U.S.–China exchange.

Szymanski, who was the main speaker at an event hosted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s China Program, has been a key organizer for the exchange since it was created in 1999. He enthusiastically described the benefits of interparliamentary exchanges, noting that they educate legislators and help them better understand China. “You can’t teach American members of Congress about China from Washington,” he declared. “It’s not going to happen.”

In response to a question from Robert Sutter of Georgetown University, Szymanski said that because “Republicans are not internationally-minded … What happens if the House flips? There’s even greater potential.”

It’s a bit unclear to me why this is the case. According to Szymanski, funding is not a problem at all. He gave rough numbers, saying about $500,000 has built up from Hastert’s appropriations, and most incoming delegations only cost about $50,000 each. Outgoing exchange, he says, is already funded by other parts of the U.S. government.

Dealing with China out in the open, however, can be politically awkward for some members, he said. Szymanski, who works for Rep. Donald Manzullo (R-Ill.), said Chinese delegations usually want to visit Manzullo’s home district, but they have to explain that it would be politically difficult to do so. The Northern Illinois district is home to an industrial economy that is currently in competition with the low prices in China, and voters there might see working with China as a betrayal.

Indeed, Szymanski is not all positive on China. “I’ve got lots of worries about what the rise of China means for the United States,” he said, echoing what I would call the conventional wisdom frame of China policy in Washington. He sounded like an ’80s Japan alarmist, though, when he said: “I’m telling you that the people we see rising up in Asia are going to kick our—” he stopped, and pointed to his rear. So he’s forcing his kids to learn Mandarin.

Some other points:

  • Interestingly, Szymanski said that U.S. members of Congress don’t seem to mind that they are dealing with leaders who aren’t elected. Instead the key is “tremendous face to face contact and education,” he said.
  • He recalled the first Chinese delegation of staff (not legislators) to the U.S. last May, saying that the Chinese seemed genuinely interested in finding out how the U.S. Congress works: “I don’t think they were manipulating us. … They asked extremely complex questions about how a legislature like ours works.”
  • He was sometimes dismissive of U.S. and European watchdog groups and the U.S. State Department, saying, “There is nothing that can happen that’s enough to satisfy Western watchdogs.” He emphasized, however, that progress is being made on human rights issues in China, even if slowly.
  • On trips to China, Szymanski said he has had unfettered access to wherever he asked to go. On trips to Tibet, he was allowed to stop at random and talk to the people there. He seemed to like Tibet.
  • He framed U.S. foreign policy as sometimes myopic, saying that because of “our obsession with the Middle East … we’re neglecting much of the rest of the world.” I hear ya.

My Op-Ed Today in the Mercury News

Bay Area friends will find an op-ed column I wrote in the San Jose Mercury News today (Sunday, Sept. 17, 2006). Here is the text as it appeared, reprinted by permission:

“U.S. should press Japan to mend fences with China”

By Graham Webster

When Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visited Graceland with President George W. Bush this summer, Japanese-U.S. friendship took center stage. Koizumi, an avid Elvis fan whose suave hairstyle contributed to his maverick image at home, enjoyed a close relationship with Bush. But Koizumi’s tepid relations with China and other Asian nations pose a challenge to both Tokyo and Washington. His departure this week is an opportunity for a much-needed change.

Under Koizumi, Japan supported the invasion of Afghanistan and sent troops to Iraq, despite constitutional limits on military deployment. Koizumi’s team worked with the Bush administration on security in Taiwan and North Korea, and Japanese-U.S. economic ties are healthy.

But just as Koizumi strengthened cooperation with the United States, he slowed diplomatic relations with China to a virtual crawl through his uncompromising behavior on historical issues. Koizumi’s handling of the so-called “history problem” has been so ham-handed that Japan’s bid for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council last year resulted in dozens of anti-Japan demonstrations in China, including the largest single demonstration in Beijing since the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident.

The Chinese government was already fed up with Koizumi. Fulfilling a campaign promise to a right-wing interest group, Koizumi made five yearly visits to the controversial Yasukuni shrine, which honors Japan’s war dead since the 1860s, including 14 people convicted as Class A war criminals after World War II. The Chinese and South Korean governments have loudly chastised him for the visits, which they say are a nod to Japan’s imperialist past.

The Bush administration, preoccupied with anti-terrorism efforts and a troubled Iraq strategy, has stayed out of this dispute. Some say Bush’s failure to scold Koizumi on historical issues, while humoring his Elvis impersonation, was read as a snub in East Asia. But soon, everything might be “all shook up” in Japan. Shinzo Abe, who most agree will become prime minister this week, has defended Koizumi’s shrine visits, but he has made no promises to visit regularly. Indeed, seeing the opportunity to improve ties with China, he has already hinted that he might forgo a visit this fall to pave the way for a summit with Chinese President Hu Jintao in November.

Now it’s time for the United States to fully engage in the region. The White House should tell Abe that antagonizing Japan’s neighbors is not an option, and it should make sure China overhears. Then the administration should commit to greater engagement with China. Policy-makers concentrating on the Middle East need to be reminded that East Asia, too, is a vital region for America’s future. East Asia won’t wait for Washington to wake up.

If Japan mends ties with China and becomes more independent of the United States, American businesses may lose customers. Japan already trades more with China than with the United States, and a Japanese Cabinet minister last month found international support for an $80 million study toward an agreement to open up trade in Asia. The proposed agreement would include Japan, China, South Korea and Southeast Asian countries, as well as Australia, New Zealand and India. If it comes through, the accord would include more than 3 billion people, but Americans would be left out.

The position of the United States as a moral leader in the world is also in jeopardy. China is working to improve its image and turn itself into a regional leader. Privileged Southeast Asians, who for years have seen value in learning English or Japanese, are now considering Mandarin, and China is building the schools to teach them. The United States should be a driving force in Asia for human rights, but Washington must lead by example. The Bush administration’s treatment of detainees in Guantánamo Bay, and highly publicized crimes by U.S. forces at Abu Ghurayb and Al-Hadithah, undermine U.S. moral authority.

Finally, the world’s military balance may change. In the coming decades, both Japan and the United States are likely to face a more powerful China and perhaps even an end to unilateral U.S. dominance in the Pacific. But Japan and the United States will be more secure if both countries work with China and avoid any standoff over such potential flash points as Taiwan and the Korean Peninsula.

To maintain peace and prosperity in East Asia and at home, the United States must make the region a high priority. If we don’t, we ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog at Heartbreak Hotel.

GRAHAM WEBSTER is associate editor of CampusProgress.org, the youth-oriented magazine of the Center for American Progress in Washington. He wrote this article for the Mercury News.