Not long ago, relations between China and Japan were predictably prickly. The two sides regularly exchanged barbs over slights such as visits by Japanese leaders to Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine, which extols Japan's wartime generals. They almost came to blows over the oil-rich Spratley Islands. America was a buffer.
Over the past seven months, however, there's been a visible thaw. Although Chinese gunships still guard the Spratleys, the two governments seem to be edging closer on the diplomatic and economic fronts. Top diplomats have begun exchanging visits. Business delegations receive high-profile receptions.
"There's been a rapprochement," says Joseph Nye, former senior Defense Department official now at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.
That may seem good in principle, but it has some U.S. China-watchers wringing their hands. If Japan were to distance itself from the United States -- and move closer to China -- it could alter the balance of power in Asia and leave the United States at a decided disadvantage in pursuing its foreign policy goals.
Besides providing space for U.S. military bases, Japan has been a valuable ally in Washington's efforts to gain Asian support in dealings with North Korea, Iran and even Taiwan. Japan also has sent troops to help U.S.-led forces in Iraq. In return, the United States has provided Japan with a security umbrella.
Foreign policy experts say the thaw stems from two factors. First, the financial collapse that sparked the current recession is widely regarded in Asia as a failure of the U.S. economic system, making both Japan and China more wary of putting their eggs in the U.S. basket -- and more willing to accept each other as partners.
Second, the new left-leaning Japanese government, under Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, is openly questioning whether Japan should retain its close U.S. ties, and is moving to become more independent. In its view, America is in decline and China is rising. Why not recognize reality and change course?
In his first big step toward exercising independence, Hatoyama threw aside an accord negotiated by the entrenched Liberal Democratic Party that continued permission for America to use part of Okinawa as a military base. Instead, he wants many of the 50,000 U.S. troops there to move.
Improved China-Japan relations are understandable. China has surpassed America as Japan's largest export market and is about to overtake Japan as the world's second-largest economy. With the U.S. recession, trade with China -- and the rest of Asia -- is more important to Japan.
Hatoyama has said he still wants to rely on the U.S. military for protection under the decades-old U.S.-Japan security treaty. But he's less keen on hewing to a U.S.-style free-market economic approach. And he wants to form an Asia-only common market that excludes the United States.
Not surprisingly, this rhetoric has given U.S. policymakers the jitters. How far does Hatoyama really want to go toward a pro-China and pan-Asia policy? And how should policymakers here deal with the new approach? Nobody knows. Even Hatoyama has been vague.
Moreover, some China-watchers here are worried the shift is giving China an unprecedented opportunity to counter America's traditional influence with Japan -- and eventually drive a wedge between the two allies -- particularly on issues involving China, such as Taiwan and North Korea.
Charles Freeman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says China has seemed puzzled by Japan's new approach. "All the Chinese I've talked to are scratching their heads about this," he says. "They're not sure why it's happening."
As a result, Beijing is cautious, avoiding any rush into a closer relationship before it can assess the situation more fully. At the same time, senior officials have had no compunction about playing Japan and the United States against each other and waiting to see how they react.
During a visit of several hundred Japanese businessmen and lawmakers last fall, Chinese President Hu Jintao took pains to greet each one personally and pose for photographs. But the public hoopla was kept in check. Notably, the trip had been arranged by Ichiro Ozawa, Hatoyama's most powerful political strategist.
The Obama administration has been criticized for its handling of the Okinawa issue. U.S. negotiators have taken a hard line against moving the base, earning them a black eye in the media. Only in recent days has Washington begun to take a more flexible stand.
To be sure, it wouldn't be easy for Hatoyama to sever ties with America much further. Japan still needs the U.S. military presence to help guard against China and North Korea. And many Japanese are leery about Beijing. "There's a great deal of anxiety among Japanese leaders about China," Nye says.
Still, the outlook is uncertain -- and more important than it might seem on the surface -- warns Robert Fauver, a former State Department policymaker. If Japan and China move closer, he says, the United States would lose a dependable ally in Asia, support for market economics and political influence in the region. "I think it's bad news for us," he says.
This article appears in the March 20, 2010 edition of NJ Daily.