After the brutality of the Pacific campaign in the second World War and the atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, building bridges between Washington and Tokyo was a challenge for the Japanese establishment.
By 1957, Nobusuke Kishi, a conservative prime minister who did more to define Japan’s post-war relationship with Washington than any other, underlined the new closeness between these unlikely allies by playing a round of golf with Dwight Eisenhower at an otherwise segregated course in Maryland. Kishi, whose grandson Shinzo Abe is Japan’s current prime minister, also threw the first pitch at a New York Yankees baseball game.
Richard McGregor's latest book Asia's Reckoning, a compelling account of the post-war relationship between China, Japan and America, brings to life one of the globe's defining relationships – the strains, the nuances, the "competing strategic and emotional strands of trilateral ties".
It emerges at a time of unprecedented uncertainty in what is one of the world’s geopolitical flashpoints. All three countries are centrally involved in the nuclear standoff on the Korean Peninsula.
The North Koreans have fired two missiles over Japan in recent weeks, and Tokyo wants assurances Washington’s backing is not threatened by the “America First” policies of Donald Trump.
McGregor points out how Xi sees South Korea “as the soft underbelly of Western alliances in Asia”. Although this is not a book about North Korea, there is context here to the current stand-off.
Meanwhile, China is building up a blue-water navy to back its territorial claims in the region. Tokyo and Beiijng are not currently at each other’s throats, but their relationship is one of the most volatile in the region and China’s Communist Party is not slow to stoke the fires of anti-Japanese nationalism for domestic consumption.
This is one of the world’s most complicated love-hate triangles.
Diplomats say after Donald Trump hosted Abe at Mar-a-Lago in November last year, playing a golf match using a gold €3,200 Honma Beres S-05 driver presented by the Japanese prime minister, senior Tokyo diplomats approached their US state department equivalents and asked that they ensure Trump not be so generous with China, as they would take advantage of his generosity.
Kishi would eventually go on to become “Beijing’s nemesis”. Indeed, it was in reference to Kishi, McGregor points out, that we have the first recorded use of “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people”, a saying regularly wheeled out by a put-upon China to criticise its opponents.
For generations of post-war diplomats such as Henry Kissinger, it was difficult to rise above wartime memories of one of the Axis powers.
Given that Asia has never had an acknowledgment of the calamities of the war in the way there has been in Europe, history continues to colour the relationship even six decades on, and McGregor vividly describes an exchange between a jet-lagged Barack Obama and Abe over “the history wars”, where the then-US president directly requested Abe to stop controversies such as the visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, which honours war criminals alongside the war dead.
“What followed was perhaps the bluntest exchange ever between an American leader and a Japanese leader on the festering history wars. He told the prime minister that there was only one country that was benefiting from the never-ending controversies, and that was China.”
This is the “unnatural intimacy” of which the historian and diplomat George Kennan has written.
The Chinese have always been astute at exploiting these strains and a strong sense of pragmatism during the early post-war years emerges, such as Chairman Mao Zedong’s disinterest in getting an apology from Japan, rather “thanking” the Imperial Army for awakening China’s armed struggle. Without the Imperial Army, he said, “. . . we would still be in the mountains and not be able to watch Peking Opera in Beijing”.
Golf and baseball aside, what emerges is despite the close relationship between Washington and Tokyo since the war, the relationship has been up and down and rarely direct, whereas the US and China have a much more straightforward connection, despite being fierce ideological opponents, who also have a major stumbling block over Taiwan, the self-ruled island which the US has vowed to defend should China ever try to take it back by force.
McGregor, whose previous book, The Party, has become the go-to manual for understanding China's ruling Communist Party, compares the relationship between Japan and China to Asia's War of the Roses. Mao seemed to bear this out.
“It will be more difficult to settle relations of hostility between the Japanese and Chinese peoples,” Mao told Kissinger, “than between us and you.”
One of the defining moments in Sino-Japanese relations was at the APEC summit of Pacific Rim leaders in 2014 and Abe and Xi are meeting, the first such meeting between the countries for two and a half years.
Abe reaches out and addresses Xi, but then pulls back slightly, looking stunned by the lack of warmth. Xi’s cold handshake, the unsmiling way in which the Chinese president ignores him and then disengages, comes across as an act of aggression.
The Tokyo-Beijing relationship seems almost irredeemable.
“Far from exorcising memories of the brutal war between them that began in the early 1930s and lasted more than a decade, Japan and China are caught in a downward spiral of distrust and ill will. There has been the occasional thawing of tension and the odd uptick in diplomacy in the 70 years since the end of the war. Men and women of goodwill in both countries have dedicated their careers to improving relations. Most of these efforts, however, have come to naught,” he writes.
On Trump, McGregor puts things into a broader historical context, while recognising the confused message now emerging from Washington on Asia policy.
In November last year, Abe engaged in a weird, painful 19-second handshake with Donald Trump, where the US leader appeared set on pulling Abe’s arm out of his socket. Was he showing a new level in the Pacific powerplay that has defined relations between these three giants in the postwar era? Or maybe it was a complicated way of upsetting his golf swing.
Clifford Coonan is Beijing Correspondent