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Four Obstacles Must Be Overcome Towards the Stabilizing of China-Japan Relations

Viewed 1809 times 2015-3-6 23:11 |System category:Others| obstacles, China-Japan

Hu Jiping

(Hu Jiping is Research Professor and Assistant President of China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations)

As China and Japan are the two biggest powers in East Asia and the second and third largest economies in the world, so the stability of their bilateral relations is vital for maintaining regional and world peace, as well as the wellbeing of both peoples. However, over the past 40-plus years since the normalization of Sino-Japanese diplomatic relations, the stability of the bilateral relationship has been deteriorating. The reason for this is that there are more and more barriers that are increasingly difficult to overcome.


The obstacles to the steady development of China-Japan relations can be summarized as the following four issues, on two levels. The first level relates to historical and territorial issues. In the process of normalizing diplomatic relations between the two countries, Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka downplayed the historical issue, saying that Japan had “brought troubles”to China and caused unpleasantness on the Chinese side. But at the time, basically speaking, the historical issue was neither an outstanding obstacle nor the main content of the negotiations relating to the normalization of China-Japan diplomatic ties. Some Japanese scholars previously pointed out that at that time there was no obvious Japanese right-wing voice denying a history of aggression, towards China. Besides, most of those Japanese politicians or people making contact with China “felt guilty”towards China, so China did not expect that the historical issue would become a problem. However, a series of Japanese actions ten years later, such as the Japanese“textbook incident”in 1982, and Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone and all of his cabinet members officially visiting the Yasukuni Shrine in 1985, led to strong backlash on the Chinese side. The Memorial Hall of the Victims in Nanjing Massacre by Japanese Invaders and the Memorial Museum of Chinese People’s Anti-Japanese War were set up in 1985 and 1987 respectfully. On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in 1995, the Japanese right-wing’s strong reaction to Congress’s“no war”resolution and their remarks denying a Japanese invasive history during the war once again negatively affected Sino-Japanese relations. The“Tomiichi talks”was one of the remedial measures taken by the then Prime Minister Tomiichi after the“no war resolution”had been modified beyond recognition by the Japanese Congress. The“Tomiichi talks”was the first time that Japan officially acknowledged its history of“aggression and colonial rule”. This position was widely welcomed by the international community, and was also inherited by successive Japanese cabinets. From 2001 to 2006, Koizumi visited the Yasukuni Shrine over six successive years, and the China-Japan relationship also fell into a period of“cold politics and hot economy”. Since Abe returned to power in December 2012, when questioned about the “Kono Statement” on comfort women, he has stressed that“Japanese aggression remains unresolved. He has also visited the Yasukuni Shrine, causing Sino-Japanese relations to fall into a new phase of“being cold both in politics and economy”. Looking at the past 40-plus years of Sino-Japanese relations, we can see that the historical issue has been the longest-standing and most damaging factor affecting relations between the two sides.


The China-Japan territorial dispute over the Diaoyu Islands (Senkaku Islands) is also an age-old problem, but it is not until recently that it has become an outstanding obstacle to relations between the two sides. During earlier times, the two countries agreed to take an“ambiguous”position on the problem by setting aside territorial disputes. In 1972, Prime Minister Tanaka raised the question during his visit to China. In response, Premier Zhou Enlai said“this time we don’t want to talk about it”, as the Chinese side did not think that a discussion could lead to any positive result, and Tanaka Mi did not object to leaving the issue to one side. During Deputy Premier Deng Xiaoping’s visit to Japan in 1978, he said to Prime Minister Fukuda:“Perhaps the next generation can solve this problem as their wisdom may exceed us”. In the subsequent press conference he reconfirmed:“whether in the process of the normalization of diplomatic relations or the negotiations on the signing of the Treaty (of Sino-Japanese Peace and Friendship), both sides agreed not to talk about this problem.” The Japanese side also had no objection. Takakazu Kuriyama, as the chief of Treaty Department of Japanese Foreign Ministry (who later served as vice foreign minister and the Japanese ambassador to the United States), also confirmed in the negotiations on reestablishing China-Japan diplomatic relations that China and Japan had a“tacit understanding”to put aside the territorial dispute. Due to the absence of official documents confirming this, such a“setting aside”can only be referred to as an “ambiguous shelving up”. The two sides took such an“ambiguous” position because they had no other choice unless they gave up efforts to realize the normalization of diplomatic ties and the signing of the “Sino-Japanese Treaty of Peace and Friendship”. In an interview, Kuriyama admitted that it was precisely because of this“ambiguous” position on the territorial issue that the two sides eventually achieved the above two diplomatic goals. But its disadvantages are also very obvious, namely that both sides have had worries about how to solve the territorial dispute in the future. Consequently, Japan has been attempting to strengthen its actual control, and China has been repeatedly declaring its own claims, making it more and more difficult for the two sides to maintain such an“ambiguous”position. After the“ship-collision incident” in 2010, the Japanese side insisted on suing the Chinese fishing-boat captain on the basis of its“domestic law”. This indicates that Japan has formally abandoned its former“ambiguous”stance, and that it clearly denies the existence of any difference between the two sides and the bilateral consensus of setting aside the dispute. Such a shift from an “ambiguous”to a clear position also means that there will be a head-on conflict between the two sides, and that their territorial claims and contradictions are becoming incompatible. Moreover, it is easy to shift from an ambiguous position to a clearer stance, but difficult to return to the former ambiguous one. This is clearly outside of original expectations. If the territorial issue cannot be put aside, it will be difficult for the two sides to achieve stability in their bilateral relations.


The second level relates to security and strategic mutual trusts. Since the mid-1990s, Japan has been very concerned about China’s military development. Whenever China held its annual National People’s Congress, Japan would focus its attention on defense spending growth in China’s annual budget. In Japan, the“Chinese threat”has been an important topic in political, media, and public discussions in recent years while China’s pledge of“peaceful development”has been rarely understood. In 2013, Japanese Prime Minister Abe said that should China maintain its current speed of military development, the“Sino Japanese military balance will be destroyed in two years”. In 1996, Japan attempted to reposition its alliance relationship with the United States. In 1999, Japan approved the “Perimeter Situation Act”, expanding the range of U.S.-Japanese military cooperation. All of this has made China very uneasy. Since Abe took office, in particular, no effort has been spared to promote the revision of the Japanese constitution, and to lift the bans on arms exports and the right for Japan to exercise collective defense. This has caused China to be on even higher alert. Abe’s remarks on the historical issue have also caused many other countries to doubt the sincerity of Japanese reflections on its history of aggression. Japan’s forceful acceleration in pace to“becoming a normal state”has caused China to doubt the meaning of Japan’s“positive peace doctrine”and its future development trend. Some people even doubt whether Japanese militarism will reemerge. With regard to the issue of the Diaoyu Islands, Japan has not only rejected peaceful dialogue, but has also been actively preparing for a war preventing China from“seizing the islands”, thus further exacerbating security tensions between the two sides. As such, mutual distrust and tensions on the question of security have become another major obstacle to the improvement of China-Japan relations in the new era.


In 2010, China’s GDP surpassed that of Japan. Although this was anticipated, it still had a significant psychological impact on the Japanese side. On the one hand, because Japan is losing the psychological advantage that it maintained over China for more than 100 years after the 1894 Sino-Japanese war, as well as facing a comprehensive challenge to its “Asian leader”status; on the other, there is also a relationship with the Japanese national character. The Japanese nation has respected power ever since ancient times, and is very sensitive to changes in national strength and its power position in the region. As such, its response to the rise of China is much stronger than that of other countries. Prime Minister Abe, during his first visit to the United States in 2013, vowed that“Japan will never be a second-class country”. This statement also related to the impact caused by the rise of China. In the security and diplomatic fields, Japan considers coping with China’s rise to be the biggest issue of the century. Over the past year, Prime Minister Abe has conducted unusually frequent diplomatic activities. One of his important goals has been to seek other countries’support in confrontation with China. Objectively speaking, because the speed of China’s rise has been so fast, psychologically Japan requires more time to adapt to the new external environment, and such a psychological adaptation will have a close bearing on the stability of Sino-Japanese relations.


Of the above-mentioned issues, the first two have become increasingly prominent in recent years, and they are also closely related to the latter two. It can even be said that the first two reflect the “superficiality”of their differences, and the latter two the“essence”of them. In order to rebuild stable Sino-Japanese relations, the two sides should not only properly handle historical and territorial issues towards reducing those negative influences and helping to ease their bilateral relations, but also try to strengthen security and strategic mutual trust, in order to expand their common interests in the field of security, and to establish a framework for the long-term stability of their bilateral relations. To this end, the governments of both countries should take a firm grasp of the direction in which their bilateral relations is developing, and try to make more contributions to regional stability and peoples’happiness. In this way, they will be able to establish true China-Japan“strategic mutual beneficial relations”.

(Opinions of the writer in this blog don't represent those of China Daily.)


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Contemporary International Relations(ISSN1003-3408), a policy-oriented research journal, was inspired by the need for the international communication in a period of rapid Chinese development.

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