In March, it became clear that for the first time ever, Asian countries are spending more on their military than are European nations. Is this another portentous moment, heralding the inevitable shift of power and influence from West to East? As Claude Meyer writes in his study of the complex relationship between Japan and China, we are sometimes handicapped from the start by trying to make sense of what "Asia" is. As a term, Asia may have made sense in the time of Herodotus, but just looking at the case of Japan and China shows how members of this group are often worlds apart.
First there is history - as Meyer puts it, "the weight of the past hampers Tokyo's diplomatic and strategic ambitions". It is something that China exploits on occasion, and on occasion becomes just as entrapped in as Japan, unable to think beyond the tragic history of the middle years of the 20th century during the period of the great conflicts. Then there is competition for resources - both powers have little to exploit in their own backyard and need to seek materials beyond their borders.
Finally there is the way in which, politically, they fit within the international system of alliances and multilateral organisations. Japan is a close ally of the US, having partially ceded its sovereignty after defeat in the Second World War to enjoy the protective security blanket of the world's final superpower, maintaining a democracy that in 2009 finally turfed out the party that had ruled for most of the past half-century and returned another that so far has failed to come up with the goods.
China, on the other hand, is the world's final major state in which a communist party enjoys a monopoly on power. It is a country regarded with suspicion because of its rising resource needs and its immense economic growth rates.
Japan and China have a history of bad blood, despite having signed a mutual friendship agreement in 1978. In the past few years alone, they have argued over Japan's attempts to secure a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, outstanding maritime border disputes and Japan's role in the resolution of the crisis on the Korean peninsula. Japan remains the favourite target of nationalist anger in the newly resurgent People's Republic, with even the friendliest football match between the two nations likely to lead to pitched street battles. The strategy of some of the Japanese elite is best illustrated by the extraordinary comments made in February by the mayor of Nagoya, who denied the 1937 Nanjing massacre to a group of visiting Chinese dignitaries.
What Meyer makes clear in this concise overview is that Japan and China have one fundamental complementary area - that of economic growth. Japan has been the largest giver of aid to China, its primary trade partner and one of its biggest investors. Japan's modernity has been the inspiration for almost everything China has done since its own reforms started in 1978. We forget Japan's remarkable record as an innovator and inventor. This book cites plenty of instances in which Japan has led the world, and many areas where it is still dominant. Like it or not, for most Chinese, Japan's standard of living and development levels are what they aspire to.
So although this book draws out a number of possible future scenarios in which China and Japan come to blows, thankfully the likeliest one in the short- to mid-term future is that these two important powers will have no choice but to work with each other. And that, for the rest of the world, in view of their violent and tragic history, is a good thing.
China or Japan: Which Will Lead Asia?
By Claude Meyer
Hurst, 288pp, £25.00
Published 1 January 2012