For decades Japan has patiently fostered maturity and order in its relationships with its neighbors, expecting that time and deepening interdependence would yield behavior constrained by a set of mutually agreed rules-in short, that Japan and its neighbors would be waltzing in a formal ballroom setting. The past couple of years have been, instead, a slam dance of intentional collisions and growing frustration. Can the partners resume their orderly maneuvering, or will flying knees and elbows lead to a fight on the dance floor of East Asia?
To perhaps push the metaphor too far, it will depend in large part on the music being played; the predictable notes of cooperation, exchange, and trade and investment produce a careful dance, while the harsh discord of historical and territorial disputes leads directly to bumps and bruises. Much of this is beyond the control of Tokyo: Increasing assertiveness by China has been a widely recognized theme for several years, while South Korea has pursued nationalistic posturing since then-South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s 2012 visit to the islands claimed by South Korea as the Dokdo and by Japan as Takeshima. Nonetheless, it is commonly believed that it is Japan’s behavior and rhetoric, especially since the return to power of hawkish Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, that has drowned out the dulcet harmonies of mutualism and cranked up the volume of clashing interests.
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