As the world adjusts to the rising Chinese power and the waning of the enigma of the Japanese power, it becomes necessary to locate them in the dialectics of bilateral dynamics as well as regional power balances.

A shifting order in Asia means relatively unstable alliances, transforming economies and multi-fold loyalties. This is best understood under the concept of “a new model of major power relations” for which the current leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) under Xi Jinping appears to be aspiring as a long-term goal.

Japan’s historical imprints have been a largely hindering factor in their relationship with China, but it is significant to take cognisance of the fact that the Japanese government was a primary supporter of the rapid economic growth of China since Deng Xiaoping’s open-door and reform policies. The Japanese intention was to bring China into the post-war liberal international order. The relationship remained complicated due to the discourse of the “one-hundred year history of humiliation” by interjection of domestic politics and public sentiments. 

This was due to the fact that China held several resentments against the Japanese, articulated especially since the 1980s.

First, the Chinese objected to the changes in the history textbooks on the narratives of Japanese aggression in Nanjing. Second, a severe damage to their relations ensued from the 2005 Yasukuni shrine visit by the then Japanese Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi. This was corrected when current Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, to his credit and against his natural instincts, sought political rapprochement with China. Abe’s ice-breaking visits in October 2006 and 2007 helped to moderate the role of history, but tensions continue to arise due to their continued obeisance to the Yasukuni shrine.

Yasukuni Shrine, Tokyo | Photo: Wikimedia Commons

There remains a fundamental difference in perception between China, which aspires for a Sino-centric order in Asia and mandates status recognition, as against the Japanese preference to align with a modern international relations order based on law and liberalism. Two issues are of critical importance while analysing the dynamics of the Sino-Japanese relations.

First, can Japan and China keep issues of history and the animosity from spilling over in other dimensions of their relationship? Second, can deepening economic inter-dependence really prevent history and rising nationalism on both sides from inflicting fundamental damage on bilateral relations between the two?

Can the future aspirations of economic development attain common grounds so as to culminate into a collective dream of a rising Asia or will the two countries continue along their respective segregated paths? Will India be able to dilute the increasing influence of China in the East Asian region or will China continue to expand its influence at the expense of Japan?

Misunderstandings from history

When Deng Xiaoping started his reform policies in 1978, he gladly accepted official development assistance (ODA) and foreign direct investments (FDI) from Japan. Japan was the first country to provide bilateral aid to the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and with four major assistance packages totalling over US$13 billion, it has provided more than three quarters of China’s total bilateral loans.

But as the national conditions necessitated and Deng Xiaoping tried to emphasize patriotism and unity of the Chinese people using modern history, Japan came to be embroiled in China’s changes in the domestic politics of identity. The two nations were not always at odds and had remarkable economic exchanges historically. Initial trading relations between the mainland and the archipelago blossomed into cultural and political exchanges in a process that brought massive learning and change to Japan.  

The word dobun doshu, meaning “same script, same race,” is a common phrase, which acknowledges Japan’s cultural debt to China. Qin (221–207 B.C.) and Han (206 B.C.–220 A.D.) dynasty records indicate that Chinese immigrants introduced a wide variety of new techniques, such as weaving and rice cultivation, and Chinese cultural influences filtered through Korea into Japan. Japan accepted its inferior status until 1547 — the year of the last recorded tribute mission — when it cut off the tributary relationship and established a rival system of its own, competing with China for control of the Korean peninsula.

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Even Buddhist ties were maintained between the two sides. The arrival of US Admiral Matthew C Perry in Japan in 1853 proved to be a turning point for Japan as well as for China and laid the way forward for better trade relations between them.

However, the bilateral relationship came to be ruined by deep impressions of Japanese aggressiveness that conjure up images of Japanese atrocities during World War II — the puppet state of Manchukuo, the Rape of Nanjing, biological warfare units. Yet, it is to be borne in mind that for over two millennia, from the third century B.C. until the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War in 1894, economic interaction between China and Japan provided the basis for a productive period of cultural exchange and political stability.

Japan was construed to have gone terribly wrong starting 1905 as it entered a period of military aggression. However, Japan has also been at the receiving end of an Allied mentality and its domestic structures have remained rooted in the post-war settlement imposed by Japanese defeat in World War II, since Japan as an Axis power was obliged to accept the Allied occupation and the accompanying reforms of democratisation, deconcentration and demilitarisation.

Hence, a case for like-minded historical experiences of defeat could be made on both sides to reduce the animosity in this love-hate relationship.

Bodies of victims along Qinhuai River out of Nanjing’s west gate during Nanjing Massacre, 1937-38 | Photo: Moriyasu Murase, Wikimedia Commons

The ‘Yoshida doctrine’ paved way for the establishment of the ‘1955 political system’ of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), one-party government and strong bureaucratic direction, realising rapid economic development and limited remilitarisation. Japanese nationalism came to be manifest in the form of economic prowess and cultural pluralism while at the same time it was obliged to accept a low-profile posture and compensate for its legitimacy deficit by positing the image of a ‘peace-loving state’ in an effort to reintegrate with East Asia.

The narrative formation was extremely important as the conservatives created three main national myths that embodied a minimalist approach to Japanese war guilt.

First was the “myth of the military clique”, which held only a small group of military warmongers responsible for the war of aggression and claimed that the rest of the nation (including the Emperor, the majority of the conservative ruling class and ordinary Japanese people) were innocent victims of war. Second was the western-biased approach that held Japan responsible for opening hostilities against the western powers but ignored its actions of aggression and its atrocities in Asian countries. Third is the notion of “sacrifice as heroic” that gave imperial soldiers special honour because they sacrificed themselves for the nation.     

The pursuit of Seikei burni (separation of politics and economics) was generally successful in the immediate post-war period as history was kept off the agenda and development took priority. Yoshida and his successors held out long-term hopes for the normalisation of ties with China, doubting that Chinese communism would ever present a serious threat to Japan and sought restoration of vital economic ties. The approach worked well till late 1990s, with provocative issues being defused with continued promises of yen loans and low-key recognition of past aggression.

One of the main reasons why this approach worked was because the traditional world order that had collapsed, according to Mark Mancall’s argument, was actually rapidly revived under complicated conditions of China’s foreign relations and constantly changing traditional Chinese perception of world order.  

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In Middle Kingdom and Empire of the Rising, June Teufel Dreyer demonstrated how the fight for regional dominance stretched back to 1,500 years through prickly protocol, with the Chinese dynastic courts always trying to present Japan as a semi-vassal state, and the Japanese returning the contempt in the earliest dynasties. The Chinese experience, on the other hand, was somewhat delayed with modernisation reforms coming in only by the 1980s and the need for cultural preservation domineered by Han-centric unitary identity-building.

Chinese historiography, on the other hand, has often praised the CCP as the sole leader of the “Great Chinese War of resistance against Japanese Aggression” and highlighted the heroic People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and underground resistance campaigns led by the CCP. Yet, there were instances when people (for instance Mei Ruao – Chinese Judge at the Tokyo Trial) doing historical research on the Nanjing massacre were accused of “stirring up national hatred and revenge.”

Later, however, the Chinese blamed not just the small group of militarists, but the entire Japanese nation that was brutal, aggressive and unrepentant in the 1998 Chinese book Japan: A Country that Refuses to Admit its Crimes

There are patterns of fractious troughs followed by warm peaks, before the troughs reoccur again, which are connected by an internal logic – they are evidence of strategic competition between the two. However, the burdens of history will continue to weigh heavily in contemporary Japan-China relations in the twenty-first century. So far, the government has managed to supress large-scale anti-Japanese mass movements, but doing so will be less effective with the bilateral problems and anti-Japanese popular nationalism brewing widely in Chinese society. Any attempts at genuine reconciliation will have to take a pecuniary shield. 

First Sino-Japanese War 1894/95: Soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army are firing their Murata Type 22 rifles, 1894 | Photo: Oomoto, Wikimedia Commons

The Senkaku, Diaoyu Qiudao and the Tiaoyutai Dilemmas 

Also called the Diaoyu Islands, these set of Islands became a cause of tension as the Chinese claimed it as a part of Taiwan in the late 1960s. Repeated incursions in the territorial waters of the Senkaku since 2008 have irked the Japanese, while the Chinese continue to strengthen their position, as expressed by the deputy chief of the General Chief of Staff of PLA, Wang Guanzhong, at the Shangri-La Dialogue held in Singapore in 2014. 

On the other hand, the Japanese have claimed these islands for more than a century, with an interruption of twenty-six years from 1945 to 1971 when the US occupied the Senkaku as part of the Okinawa Archipelago. The Japanese showed some inconsistency in 2012 when amid quickly worsening relations with China over the islands dispute, the Japanese government decided to terminate the lease agreement of the Senkaku Islands that had been in effect since 2002 in the hope of maintaining the status quo, as stated in the 2013 Japanese title Secret Battle: Nationalisation of the Senkakus. This move has elicited strong opposition from regressive nationalists confusing both external perceptions and the Japanese decision-making process.

The economic relationship between Japan and China was also impacted adversely due to Tokyo’s decision to nationalise the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea in 2012, which triggered strong anti-Japan demonstrations in China, leading to a severe drop in Japanese investments in China. How has the Xi Jinping administration tackled these issues?

The disputed islands between China and Japan | Map: Wikimedia Commons

Rebuilding economic linkages

Economic relations between China and Japan considered stagnant for several years are being revived at an unprecedented pace. A recent visit by the secretaries general of Japan’s ruling coalition parties – Toshihiro Nikai of the Liberal Democratic Party and Yoshihisa Inoue of Komeito – to Xiamen, Fujian province, in December 2017 set the stage for a joint proposal between Japan and China seeking out ways to cooperate on concrete projects under China’s “One Belt, One Road” or the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) for cross-continental infrastructure investment.

Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, who has a severe public stance on Japan, expressed hope in January 2018 for the relations to return to normal so that diplomatic relations between the two countries can get back on track. Areas of cooperation include building infrastructure, such as environmental protection projects, construction of industrial parks and physical distribution networks and railways. Financial authorities in Tokyo and Beijing have also agreed on a framework for Japanese companies to issue Yuan-denominated bonds in China. Abe has also indicated that Japan may consider joining the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) under certain conditions. 

These moves indicate a very measured and a slightly submissive approach towards China by the current Japanese government. At the same time, the Japanese are on a look out for business opportunities in other Asian countries, which are cautious and hesitant of investing in China-led infrastructure.

Both the countries have been emphasising on the “three principles” that he expected to guide Sino-Japanese relations: first, shifting from competition to collaboration; second, becoming partners instead of threats to each other; and third, developing a free and fair trade regime.

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The narratives, however, remain tinged with demonstrations of superior attitudes by the Chinese who, inflamed by jingoistic feelings, tend to hover on the fact that how generous China has been by not insisting on war reparations and thus, paving way for Japanese companies and goods during the reform and opening period.

Of late, with Japan-China trade plateauing and the flows of Japanese direct investment on a decline, the bilateral relationship has come to be defined as that of “cold politics and cold economic relations.” 

However, this time, keeping the historical malaise aside, the Xi Jinping government is trying to court the Japanese administration to get its support for their dream project – BRI. As such, both economies have been found to be complementary and using ODA for the development of the mainland’s local companies. As a result, small and medium-sized Asian businesses are expected to produce positive results. Japanese firms have so far provided ODA for moving from physical infrastructure to capacity-building, boosting trade and industrial production to social and environmental concerns, impersonal to personal aid relationships, high budgetary spending to lower budgetary spending, little political conditionality to greater political conditionality and also environmental assistance to China.

These economic engagements are likely to strengthen in future as both the nations continue to depend on each other for trade motives. Yet, not much warming up is expected. 

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (left) with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Nov 2017 | Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Perception management and strategic inevitabilities

Perception and approach towards China’s rising influence are invariably shaped by two simultaneous forces, namely gaiatsu (foreign pressure), mainly from the United States, and naiatsu (internal pressure) from domestic groups.

Japanese policy has often fallen prey to inconsistent policies, mainly due to interventions by the US. For instance, the Japanese recently banned Huawei and the ZTE, following in the steps of the US ban. Opinions are also divided amongst those handling foreign affairs and the Ministry of Economic, Trade, and Industry (METI). Though a reluctant participant, the METI and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) have been on different grounds about Japan’s participation in the BRI so as to court regional infrastructure development under the ‘free and open Indo-Pacific (FOIP)’ vision.    

The legislation for peace and security passed in the Japanese National Diet in September 2015 threw some light on this, but Abe’s visit to China in 2018 was the actual eye-opener. On 25 October 2018, Abe and Xi agreed to realign their bilateral relationship in accordance with three key principles: ‘shifting from competition to cooperation’, ‘forging a relationship as partners, not as threats’; and ‘developing a free and fair trade regime’.

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This is a replica of the similar pattern followed in the Sino-US engagement whereby China and the US continue to cooperate on the major country relations aspect via four key elements, that is, at the levels of strategic trust and core interest as well as mutual benefits and coordination on global issues (endorsed by both former US President Obama and former diplomat, Susan Rice). More importantly, China expects the US to respect an Asian order with China as its primary architect and a gradual withdrawal of the US from the Asian regional politics.  

Notwithstanding the US presence, the last few years have been particularly favourable to bring about a thaw in the bilateral relationship as well as giving a scope for regional cooperation in the Asia-Pacific. The two countries celebrated the 40th Anniversary of the 1978 Treaty of Peace and Friendship in 2018, marking anew an expansive phase of relation between the two countries. The cooperative tenor was more visible than competitiveness during Abe’s visit to Beijing in October 2018, the first by a Japanese prime minister in nearly seven years, which was followed by the signing of 52 memoranda of cooperation in a wide range of areas

The Chinese ambassador to Japan, Chen Yonghua, highlighted this juncture in their relationship as “a new historical starting point” that is a rare phenomenon in the history of diplomacy. 

A case for normalisation

Though the Chinese discourse on national humiliation garners much more legitimacy and attention when compared to Japan’s narrative, the revisionists have argued that past military actions were necessitated by the threats posed to national existence by other great powers. At the time, there is an attempt at recalculating a sense of patriotism or ‘healthy nationalism’ through changing the Basic Education Law and through practice of assertive diplomacy. The two have decided to forego the imprints of history and a case for “renormalisation” has been built.

This includes first, restoring China–Japan relations from the series of incidents that catalysed its initial deterioration, namely, the entrance of a Chinese vessel into Japanese territorial waters around the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in 2008, the 2010 collision between a Chinese fishing vessel and a Japan Coast Guard vessel and the Japanese government’s transfer of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands from private to public ownership in 2012; and second, realigning Japan–China relations to reflect China’s economic strength and position as a global power.

Japan hopes to relaunch a cooperative development program in the East China Sea, first agreed upon in 2008 between then leaders Hu Jintao and Yasuo Fukuda. Some agreements on maritime communication and joint search and rescue mechanisms are also in the pipeline. As far as the BRI is concerned, Abe has already explained that ‘the possibility of cooperation will be explored on a case-by-case basis with the Chinese and other countries staying short of committing full resources at disposal. 

In the longer run though, Japan is likely to face several problems that might be responsible for the stagnation of its growth, such asageing and decreasing population problems, reluctance of taking foreign professionals, huge fiscal deficits, closed agricultural and fishery market issues. These will either leave Japan out of the rest of Asia or cause Japan to develop without substance.

Barring the historical malaise, Japan seems to use its political and military muscle to produce desired outcomes, much like China. In the current scenario, as China’s economy grows, competition with Japan for resources and markets is rising. Both wish to match their economic prowess with leading roles in world diplomacy, and both are anxious to take maximum advantage of a rapidly changing regional power balance.

Historical impressions, however, continue to guide the deeper understanding between the two nations, making the normalisation process very difficult, if not transitory. They are also proving to be a major deterrent to Xi Jinping’s pet project, BRI, and by corollary, his Tokyo dream.

Views expressed are the author’s own.