The closer they get, the farther apart they seem. Only in the past few years have China and Japan become each other's largest trading partners. They've also tried to weave the Far East into a tighter economic community. Yet the recent protests against Japan in several Chinese cities show just how much these historical rivals must still rise above their nationalist instincts for the sake of creating a stable East Asia.
Just imagine where Europe would be today if its giants, France and Germany, were still scratching at each other in public 60 years after World War II.
The protests against Japan began in an Internet campaign by Chinese students to prevent Tokyo from winning a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Then they escalated when Japan, once again, altered a history textbook to gloss over its wartime actions against China, reinforcing the perception that the Japanese aren't truly the postwar pacifists they've so ably demonstrated for half a century.
These incidents add to recent friction over disputed islands, Taiwan, Japan's military expansion, and the Japanese prime minister's visits to a Tokyo shrine that includes the remains of 14 war criminals. Japan also now realizes that years of aid to China have bought little friendship. And last November, it caught a Chinese submarine in its waters.
One basic problem is that China is catching up quickly to Japan in economic clout after more than a century of being weak. The speed of China's climb since 1979 hasn't matched the skills of the two nations to design a partnership that lets them work out their differences. Leaders of the two nations have not exchanged visits in years, a sign that each is stuck in asserting a robust nationalism for domestic reasons.
Tokyo's leaders want Japan to be treated as a "normal" country, forgetting the war past, projecting a military presence, and earning international respect. China's Communist Party leaders have resorted to stoking nationalist outrage, with Japan as an easy target, to maintain unity; but they know they must control it before protests turn on them. (They also know that the party's record of mass killings under Mao and at Tiananmen hardly gives it a platform to criticize Japan.)
What should glue the two together is their growing economic integration. Leaders on both sides dare not upset that apple cart. Each troubling incident brings warnings from business, and leaders learn a bit more that their legitimacy lies in ensuring prosperity, not nationalist grandeur.