To broaden the scope of our conversation a bit, this “wealth and power” complex is something that runs throughout modern East Asian history, and remains a core element in the legitimacy of current governments. Shinzo Abe, after winning the election to become Japan’s prime minister, promised that “we are going to win back Japan and build a strong country, a prosperous country.” South Korea’s newly elected president Park Geun-hye campaigned on her father’s legacy of having transformed South Korea into a middle class “middle power.” North Korea’s young Respected Leader, Kim Jong Un, is projecting himself as a populist leader determined to restore the DPRK to being a “strong and prosperous great country” (kangsong taeguk).
This common telos can lend a striking pragmatism to East Asian relations, when leaders see it as in their country’s economic interest to resolve, or at least shelve, ideological and historical disputes. Deng Xiaoping showed that kind of pragmatism in tabling many issues with Japan, including territorial disputes, for the sake of China’s economic development—as Ezra Vogel’s recent biography shows in detail. Likewise Park Chung-hee forced through a still controversial normalization package with Japan in order the gain the sizeable economic aid package that came with it. But they also left behind ticking time bombs of deep-seated grievances held by Chinese and South Koreans toward Japan for the brutalities of Japanese imperialism, which dominated the first half of the 20th century.
A stagnant, if not declining, Japan has just elected a nationalist leader. A rising China, perhaps but not necessarily on track to emerge as a 21st century superpower, has just selected an equally nationalist leader. Should both men, and their publics, focus on the “wealth” part of the equation, they will presumably find a way to once again table this dispute. But should Xi Jinping feel it is time for China to demonstrate its newfound “power,” and/or should Shinzo Abe determine that Japan needs to showcase its capacity to flex its muscles, despite a pacifist constitution, then the situation would seem to be bound to get worse before it gets better. Perhaps the most volatile element is the third one—the yearning for respect. China has been waiting almost 200 years to interact with the world from a position of equal, if not superior, strength. Japan is struggling after two decades of seeing its place in the world slip from under its feet. Given their unresolved historical disputes, and the very different ways in which young Chinese and young Japanese are taught to understand their past, even if this round of tension of the Diaoyu/ Senkaku islands dissipates without serious incident, it would seem a matter of time before another flare up.