Asia's Odd Couple

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For centuries, Japan was a tribute state of mighty china. But in A.D. 607, Japan's Prince Shotoku sent to Sui dynasty China an emissary, who startled his hosts by addressing the Chinese Emperor as an equal. We come from the land "where the sun rises," announced the Japanese ambassador, while referring to China as the land "where the sun sets." Countless sunrises and sunsets later, Asia is still caught between the orbits of its two great powers, each one now imbued with a renewed sense of confidence about its position in the world.

Last weekend, Hu Jintao, President of the world's presumptive superpower, and Junichiro Koizumi, Prime Minister of the world's second-largest economy, met at the APEC summit in Chile. Tensions between the two nations had boiled up after a Chinese nuclear submarine veered into Japanese waters for several days starting on Nov. 10. Japan immediately lodged a formal complaint with China, but Beijing remained silent. Finally, Tokyo said it received a brief expression of "regret" from China, instead of the more wholehearted apology Japan surely wanted.

The Santiago summit was a rare meeting between the current leaders of Asia's two powers. Despite a year filled with flash points—ranging from disputes over the ownership of a sprinkling of islands in the East China Sea to the heckling of Japanese fans at an August soccer match in Beijing—neither Hu nor Koizumi has made reciprocal visits to the other's nation. Because of his repeated trips to Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine, where several of Japan's most notorious World War II criminals are honored, Koizumi has been unwelcome in Beijing. Hu has found time to tour Gabon and Algeria but has yet to visit Tokyo.

Economically, the two nations have never been closer. Japan is China's largest trading partner, while only the U.S. trades more with Japan than China does. But politically, the Asian heavyweights are barely talking. Nowhere are attitudes more alarming than among the nations' youth. In China, many young people, primed by years of "patriotic education," feel their island neighbor hasn't done enough soul searching over its brutal war record. In Japan, youngsters are tired of apologizing for what their grandfathers did, and some are calling for their country to emerge from its pacifist shell.

Asia's century—the world's, too—will surely be partly shaped by how the two great East Asian powers get along. It's not too late for Chinese and Japanese politicians to follow the example of many of their business leaders, who have long understood that the interpenetration of the two economies works to the benefit of all. If the Chinese and Japanese political classes fail to live up to the challenge, muscular nationalism will gain strength among those who will one day lead Asia. We may all then find that the path the sun travels has become far more perilous than Prince Shotoku or the Sui Emperor ever imagined.