There is more at stake in President George W. Bush's trip to north-east Asia this week than there is in most such excursions. Beyond pressing issues such as North Korea, avian flu, and currency realignment, the critical long-range challenge in the region is ensuring a constructive relationship among China, Japan and the US. When they meet later this week, Mr Bush should press his Japanese and Chinese counterparts to take steps to defuse bilateral tensions and agree to a trilateral dialogue aimed at promoting security and prosperity in Asia.
Relations between Beijing and Tokyo, already strained, have deteriorated sharply over the past year. Sino-Japanese friction is based only in part on differences about the past; at its core, the rivalry is over the future. History has never seen a strong China and a strong Japan at the same time. But this promises to be the case in the 21st century, and both are uneasy about what it portends for their own national destinies.
Simmering resentment in China over the repeated visits by Junichiro Koizumi, the Japanese prime minister, to Tokyo's Yasukuni shrine, where 14 war criminals are buried, erupted in violent demonstrations against Japanese interests in Shanghai last April. Images of the attacks on Japanese television, in turn, fed growing nationalist sentiment in Japan over Beijing's exploitation of history for political gain.
Bilateral friction also has been fuelled by a dispute over energy rights in the waters between the two countries, by unhappiness over Japan's treatment of history in school textbooks and by Chinese opposition to Japan's bid for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. Less visibly, Beijing and Tokyo wrestle for the microphone whenever broader groupings of regional officials meet, for example in the run-up to next month's east Asian summit in Kuala Lumpur.
Distracted by other foreign policy and domestic concerns, Washington has put too little focus on the strategic challenge posed by Sino-Japanese hostility. Some US officials apparently believe that America might benefit from a certain amount of tension between Japan and China. There are many issues in Asia that demand the president's attention, from halting North Korea's nuclear ambitions to promoting balanced economic policies. Yet the risks to US strategic interests posed by these difficult challenges pale in comparison to the prospect of open Sino-Japanese conflict.
Even festering resentment across the East China Sea, by limiting the scope for co-operation on a range of regional challenges, undermines long-term American goals in Asia. Should regional politics become a zero-sum game in which countries have to choose sides and maintain good relations with one at the expense of the other, the prospects for a prosperous and peaceful Asia are sharply diminished.
There are clear steps that each of the three Pacific powers could take to build a more constructive trilateral relationship. By visiting Yasukuni shrine again on October 17, Mr Koizumi missed a unique opportunity to use his strong mandate from the September elections to perform a "Nixon in China" act by pointedly forgoing the widely expected visit. As long as Japan's war criminals are enshrined there, Mr Koizumi should stay away from Yasukuni. If he will not, he should at least assuage Chinese (and Korean) concerns by clarifying publicly the rationale for the visits, namely honouring Japan's millions of war casualties, while explicitly and forcefully denouncing the war criminals and past Japanese atrocities in China. Tokyo should also begin a long-overdue process of investing in institutions of reconciliation, akin to the broad-ranging cultural, educational and other initiatives vis-a-vis Israel and Poland that Germany undertook after the second world war.
In the light of its rising economic and political influence, Beijing should be in a more confident position to reach out to Japan. China should drop its opposition to Japan's bid for permanent Security Council membership. It should allow, without conditions, the resumption of bilateral visits at the head of state and head of government level.
More fundamentally, as Japan faces up more frankly to its own history in the first half of the 20th century, Beijing should educate its people about Japan's responsible international behaviour in the second half of the century and stop gratuitously stoking popular anger in China against Japan.
For its part, Washington could facilitate Sino-Japanese reconciliation by deepening its co-ordinated engagement with both sides and making clear its support for rapprochement. Robert Zoellick, US deputy secretary of state, has put forward the excellent idea of a trilateral discussion among historians of the three countries, since tendentious interpretations of history seem to be such an emotional flashpoint. Washington should also encourage Tokyo and Beijing to settle their territorial dispute over the median line in the East China Sea, either bilaterally or through arbitration if necessary.
And they should all agree to start a high-level, trilateral strategic dialogue. Japan, China and the US are the three countries whose actions will do most to determine whether the 21st century in east Asia is more peaceful and prosperous than the last. It is time they understood their shared interest and responsibility to ensure that this is so.