Promoting mutual distrust in the Asia Pacific now appears central to Chinese strategy. As Hugh White has argued persuasively, China seeks greater influence in Asia through weakening the faith of America's regional allies and partners in US resolve to remain engaged in the region. This will be compounded if US preparedness to work collectively as a hedge against Chinese hegemony is eroded.
Clearly, central to such a strategy is the stigmatisation of Japan, given its locale, continuing economic, technological and cultural clout, and alliance with the US. In recent months, wilful misrepresentation of Japan's contemporary character as a society and a polity under the leadership of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has escalated.
This has been evidenced starkly in Chinese media reaction to Abe's recent visit to Australia and the close and deepening ties affirmed by the Australian and Japanese governments. Shrill criticism from mainland media soon became news in its own right in Australia, and a counterweight to the otherwise upbeat news cycle around Abe's visit.
Overblown Chinese reactions to the Abbott Government's warm embrace of Abe appeared in Australia too.
'Japanese militarism is back' screamed the headline on the front cover of the Australian Chinese Weekly on 19 July. Within the paper was a full-colour glossy feature on Abe's visit to Australia, including a two-page spread repeating the headline overlaid on images of Abe and Abbott speaking together in Canberra and the rising sun emblem. The message was clear: the Australian Government, in welcoming Abe, is aiding and abetting the return of Japanese aggression.
As has recently been discussed on The Interpreter and elsewhere, the local Chinese-language media increasingly mirrors the political intentions of Beijing's leadership. Whatever the motivations for such scaremongering, it is consistent with what appears to be a deliberate strategy from Beijing of delegitimising Japan.
A core narrative is that Japan is guilty of reckless endangerment of regional peace through provocative actions towards China. This centres now on Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, with the nuances of Abe's worldview and statements disregarded as he is branded a dangerous rightist-nationalist-historical-revisionist. Such shorthand has become widespread in Western media reportage, as seen is this sloppy New York Times editorial.
Certainly Abe has given critics material to work with, most recently through his Government's review (though not retraction) of the 1993 Kono Declaration apologising to Korean 'comfort women'. Abe's visit to Yasukuni shrine stands, for critics, as having a totemic association with the glorification of past Japanese militarism despite the explicit disavowals of such a meaning by Abe.
Relations between China and Japan deteriorated markedly prior to Abe's election, primarily but not exclusively around the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute. A turning point was when Beijing chose to interpret the September 2012 decision by the left-leaning Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) Government of Yoshihiko Noda to purchase three of the Senkaku islands (from a private Japanese owner) as a major escalation of the dispute. The nationalisation decision was actually a preemptive move to stop moves by right-wing Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara and various other nationalist activists to take control of one or more of the islets. What was widely understood in Japan as a move to defuse the territorial dispute was instead interpreted by China as an act of state aggression.
China blew a rare opportunity to drive a wedge between Japan and the US during the period of DPJ governments of Hatoyama, Kan and Noda by succumbing to hubris and belligerence just when a charm offensive was called for. The only consolation for China is that Abe is an easier target for delegitimating Japan.
Japanese public opinion towards China, for a long time more positive than that felt on the mainland for Japan, has deteriorated dramatically since 2010. Arguably, the resulting political climate helped Abe's return to the Liberal Democratic Party leadership. The more trashy elements of Japan's free media increasingly exploit domestic unease about China for commercial gain, although Japanese political leaders don't appear to be boxed in, policy wise, by public opinion in relation to China. Yet there is widespread acceptance of the need for an effective China hedge through better relations with both the US and other nations of the region. Moreover, Japanese of all political persuasions are tiring of being pressured by Beijing, and by Seoul, to make symbolic concessions just to start talking.
Japan could only consider distancing itself from the US if China seemed completely benign, and such a scenario is currently unthinkable to most Japanese. This is by no means costless to China, in either security or economic terms. Japanese FDI to China is down a third on the previous year. Japanese firms have long hedged against political risk in China by maintaining a strong commitment to investing in Southeast Asia and beyond.
Viewed from China, memories of wartime Japanese aggression, instances of a defiant lack of repentance by some Japanese identities, and conjuring up the spectre of resurgent Japanese militarism would seem the ideal means to stigmatise Japan throughout an Australasia with a shared experience of suffering in the Pacific war. Yet to date, fears of present and near future aggression from China (rather than increasingly distant memories of a past Japan) seem to have greater salience.
Only in South Korea, where collective memories of the trauma of Japanese colonialism has been central to legitimating political ideologies since the Korean war, is a large proportion of both elite and popular opinion critical of Japan. But with South Korea still dependent on US security guarantees, ill will between it and Japan is primarily an issue for America.
Prime Minister Abbott's warm welcoming of Abe infuriated Beijing not just because he was prepared to be magnanimous on matters of history. Rather, by simply stating the fact that Japan has been a model international citizen for nearly seven decades and deserves 'a fair go', Abbott struck a forceful blow against Beijing's strategy of delegitimising Japan and driving an attitudinal wedge between it and its longstanding postwar friends.