SINGAPORE: He has spent six decades studying China and Japan, a time span that is only 15 years shy of the end of World War II.
In that time, the old wounds of Japanese war atrocities in China have yet to heal. And the question of whether Japan needs to apologise in the way Germany has is never far away.
Ezra Vogel, the famed 89-year scholar and Harvard University emeritus professor of social sciences, does not think it would change China’s basic foreign policy considerations. But he agrees that Japan needs “to apologise more”.
He also thinks China needs “to say thank you more” — because the Japanese became major contributors of foreign aid to the Chinese after they signed their Treaty of Peace and Friendship.
“The Japanese feel that ... (they) were very generous, after 1978, in helping China. They were giving more aid, more technological assistance, to China than any other country,” he says.
“That was given instead of reparations, and the Chinese leaders acknowledged privately at the time that that’s what the meaning was. But the Chinese (leaders) haven’t done so much publicly, and many Chinese are completely unaware of that.”
Fluent in Japanese and Mandarin, he has produced bestsellers like Japan As Number One and an authoritative, 900-page tome on Deng Xiaoping. He has even been criticised for being an unabashed admirer of Tokyo and Beijing.
For the record, he says he is not an East Asian apologist. Few in the West, however, know those countries better.
And ahead of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit to Japan in April — his first and one that experts say is a remarkable warming of bilateral relations — Prof Vogel gives his take on their relationship and also on Sino-American ties.
That includes the question of whether Beijing is trying to tug Japan out of Washington’s grasp by cosying up to Tokyo.
BETTER TIES LIKELY, BUT NOT BFFs
Just a few years ago, China and Japan had a bitter territorial dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. And although Prof Vogel reckons that relations are likely to improve now, he doubts that the Japanese will “feel comfortable being real friends”.
“They saw the pictures of Japanese businesses being trashed on television (and of) Chinese planes and ships ... near the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands (in 2013),” he cites.
“They look at the movies of WWII, which the Japanese have seen on television from China ... And (they’re) worried that if Chinese domestic problems should get very serious ... it would be quite popular in China to become anti-Japanese again.”
If they would “put in their textbooks more about the horrors they’ve done”, and be more apologetic, he thinks it would make them less vulnerable to Chinese criticism.
“When things are tense, China can always pull out the lack of apology to create problems with Japan,” he notes.
Many younger Japanese, however, are “tired” of hearing the same old thing. “They say, ‘Why should I apologise for things that happened before I was born?’ And they say, ‘We’ve apologised already. Why’s China pushing us?’” says the professor.
“The Japanese know they did bad things in WWII. They realise a lot of countries have done bad things. And they want to improve relations. But they don’t feel that they’re uniquely bad people.”
Mr Xi’s current overtures to Japan come not only a few years after bilateral tensions had been heightened, but also a decade after China overtook Japan as the world’s second-largest economy. That has since meant a “readjustment” of their relationship.
“(The Chinese) feel that they’re now in a strong position, that the power they worry about isn’t Japan but the US,” says Prof Vogel.
And because China is Japan’s largest trading partner, and Japan is China’s second-largest trading partner after the US, “there’s a very deep interlinkage”. So he thinks an improvement in ties is the likely outcome in April.
“The Japanese have a slogan: That the economics between China and Japan are hot, and the politics are cold. I think the politics can become lukewarm,” he adds. “They can calm things down and have better working relationships.”
But they do not “feel confident that they can rely on China to remain friends over a long period” — even if, as some commentators say, Mr Xi is attempting to slowly move Japan away from the US.
“If I were Japanese and thinking where my dangers are coming from in the future, I don’t think I’d worry about what the US would do to me. But I’d worry about what the Chinese might do,” says Prof Vogel.
“There’s no way the Japanese military budget can compare with China’s in future. In that situation, I think the Japanese still feel that if there were some kind of emergency or difficult issue, they’d want to rely on the US.”
And that means keeping a deep defence relationship with the US.
NO CONSENSUS ON CHINA
China’s economy is also poised to surpass that of the US — in the next 10 years, say some forecasters. But the problem with their relationship “is much deeper and is going to be harder to resolve”, says Prof Vogel.
“(The US) feels that it’s the strongest power in the world. And (there are) those who feel it’s their responsibility to defend our country against any other country, especially one that’s communist, authoritarian and doesn’t respect human rights,” he adds.
“The American people feel that this is a very different kind of country ... particularly since China has been advancing and building little islands in the South China Sea.”
One of the big questions now is whether there will be a single, integrated global economy, or a split between the Chinese and US economies. The signs are ominous.
“Many of the American companies that felt they were working with China quite well feel that they’re no longer as welcome, and that the Chinese government helps (Chinese) firms and makes things very difficult,” says Prof Vogel.
“Google can’t operate in China the way it operates in the US. So there’s a feeling in America that (the Chinese) haven’t played by the same kind of rules.”
According to him, however, many of those who study China feel that the Chinese “have done far more to adapt”, and that the mood in Washington is “overblown”.
There are far more people in China we can work with, and we feel that we have to work with them in a much more positive way — that if we treat them like an enemy, they can become an enemy.
This view of his had prompted him, together with a group of diplomats and other academics, to write an open letter to US President Donald Trump last year, titled China Is Not The Enemy.
This came about a year after an “influential article” in the Foreign Affairs magazine said engagement has not worked, which seemed to embody a Washington consensus that China “was something to worry about” and unite against.
Although there are not only Republicans, but also “a lot of Democrats who believe that”, Prof Vogel argues that a fair portion of Americans do not share that sentiment.
Even the friends he grew up with in a small town in the Midwest “have different ideas about China”. “The anti-Chinese mood is much stronger in Washington than it is in America as a whole,” he says.
“There’s a kind of frustration on the one hand and ... political opportunism, on the other hand, of congressmen and some people in Washington who hope to get jobs in future administrations (and) find it in their interests to be very tough on China.”
Those who are like him, however, believe that China, the US and the world “would be better served by finding ways in which we can work with each other”.
“There are many of us who hope that we can put America on a better path, but we don’t know (if we can),” he says.
Watch the full exclusive interview here. CNA’s In Conversation airs on Wednesdays at 9pm.