AS Japanese Foreign Minister Michio Watanabe found in Washington this week, almost all top Asia hands in the Clinton administration are China experts. Mr. Watanabe was too polite to say so, but the headline of a recent opinion article in the Asian Wall Street Journal expressed Japanese feelings: "China's Big, but Japan Matters More."
China-watchers reply that Beijing has the atom bomb; Japan does not. China is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, one of five who hold veto power. Japan is not. And, as a result of its booming economy, Beijing has the means to project power in Asia, whereas Japan's American-bestowed constitution renounces the right to go to war.
In fact, China and Japan are important in different ways and for different reasons, to the US and to the world community, and it's fruitless to argue which of the two deserves greater expenditure of thought and energy in Washington. It is understandable but unfortunate that for decades China experts in the US have tended to downgrade Tokyo, while Japan experts look down their noses at Beijing. In the days when Henry Kissinger ran US foreign policy, he was much likelier to be discussing world strategy wit h Deng Xiaoping than vexing trade questions with faceless ministers in Tokyo. President Reagan enjoyed a first-name friendship with Japan's Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, but for all his earlier support for Taiwan, he paid the obligatory tourist visit to the Forbidden City and the Great Wall.
The State Department should do what some leading American universities have done and insist that those taking a postgraduate degree in Japanese acquire at least some fluency in Chinese, and vice versa. Neither country can be looked at in isolation: what happens in or affects one, sooner or later impinges on the other.
China and Japan are as different as, say, France and Germany. For centuries, China was the fountainhead of civilization and culture, and Japan the eager student. The two countries share the same form of Buddhism and a Confucianism that still heavily influences social and political behavior, despite Chinese communism and Japan's adoption of democracy and a market economy.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, American missionaries took Christianity to both China and Japan. Both peoples were also targets of American racial prejudice. US immigration laws excluded first the Chinese, then the Japanese. But when Japan turned militarist and invaded China, American sympathies were with the victims. During World War II, the US and China were allies. It was the allied victory in that war that gave China a permanent seat at the UN Security Council.
While Japan underwent the trauma of near-total destruction in World War II and subsequent benevolent occupation by the US, China went through the cataclysm of communist revolution. Mao Zedong's catastrophic Great Cultural Revolution plunged China into chaos and took the country's economy to the brink of collapse, even as Japan achieved dizzying heights of prosperity under the banner of democracy and the entrepreneurial spirit.
China and Japan are rivals, but also friends. Each has blind spots regarding the other, and an accumulation of irritations great and small. But geography has made them neighbors, and each knows the importance of developing the kind of economic intertwining that will make war impossible. Even when the cold war was at its height, successive Japanese governments strove to keep open channels of communication with Beijing and to maintain at least a modicum of trade with it. In recent years, as China, while re maining communist, tended more toward a market economy, ties of trade and aid with Tokyo became even closer.
Yet, both for China and for Japan, relations with the US remain paramount in economic and strategic terms. Each requires a link with the US to keep Tokyo-Beijing relationships on an even keel. American involvement with either China or Japan in a way that plays favorites or that sets one against the other would be disastrous for stability in East Asia. Washington, Tokyo, and Beijing know this. But no alliance binds these three capitals and, given China's communism, no alliance is possible. All the more re ason for the Clinton administration to exercise the utmost care in managing this delicate but vital triangular relationship.