A Chinese view on fixing the Japan relationship

Author: Zha Daojiong, Peking University

Evidence of a strain in the diplomatic relationship between China and Japan over the past few years has been most apparent in the absence of summits between top government leaders, which has in turn affected routine meetings at the ministerial level. It seems that Beijing still has not overcome its diplomatic ‘Noda shock’. What hope, then, is there for an improvement in this relationship?

In September 2012, the very day after his meeting with then Chinese president Hu Jintao on the sidelines of APEC in Vladivostok, then Japanese prime minister Yoshihiko Noda announced the nationalisation of some of the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. For many in China, it was an unfathomable shock that a Japanese leader was so ready to disregard a Chinese leader’s domestic political circumstances or, seen another way, to mount such an outright challenge to his authority at home. Since then, high-level meetings have ground to a halt, the brief and visibly uncomfortable meeting between President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Abe on the side of APEC 2014 in Beijing notwithstanding.

To resume such meetings, bilaterally, trilaterally (China–Japan–South Korea) or on the side of multilateral forums, is of course in China’s interest in pursuit of a less tense external environment. But the true test is how to effectively signal their utility to respective domestic constituencies. For Beijing, Tokyo and indeed Seoul, several years of domestic acrimony on such sensitive issues as territorial sovereignty and wartime history has been such that it has put all countries’ leaders between a rock and a hard place. A prudent act of leadership now would be to gear domestic attitudes on such delicate issues towards strategic patience. This is not an easy task, yet it is essential for even a photo-op meeting to be worthwhile at all.

The history issue is often said, by those in both China and Japan tasked to find ways out of the continuing impasse, to be the key roadblock to progress. Over time, hope for government-sponsored joint versions of the history of World War II has faded to the point where there ought to be consideration of even dropping the entire project.

China, ideally, should come up with the intellectual fortitude to publicise domestically Japan’s post-war contributions towards China’s pursuit of modernisation. In the 1950s, while locked in Cold War hostility towards the Chinese government, the Japanese government allowed limited trade activities to proceed when the former was under broad Western isolation in the wake of the Korean War. Official development assistance from Japan played a powerfully supportive role in China’s re-linking with the rest of the world economy, and not only in a material sense. Particularly in the 1970s and 1980s, the fact that China and Japan were able to work cooperatively in trade and investment relations was seen as a vote of confidence in China by other industrialised nations.

China could not have succeeded in improving its relative economic position, were it not for the foundation laid in these early years. Sure, China did pay back its yen loans, but this history of economic aid still merits recognition.

To do this is, fundamentally speaking, in the interest of the Chinese polity itself. Indeed, for the past two years the phenomenon of increasing numbers of Chinese tourists travelling to Japan even against the backdrop of difficult government-to-government diplomacy can and should serve as a reminder: government-sanctioned versions of Japan are being tested. As is true in other societies, for the average citizen, while remembering an intolerable past is important, it can hardly be the only dimension of a relationship with another society. The Chinese nation-building project could benefit immensely from narrowing the unspoken gaps between accounts of pre-1945 Japanese atrocities in China and present-day sentiments about Japan that its citizens gather through personal observation and interactions.

Likewise, Japan needs to demonstrate political courage and argue that the time has come for its government to finally stay clear of efforts to whitewash what the country did in China and the Korean peninsula during the war. Yes, the Japanese political system is far more pluralistic. But how the Japanese polity projects the country’s past to its own citizenry has been, is and will be taken into account by other countries, especially those that once suffered. Japan should beware of the future costs that the ongoing diplomatic tensions carry. A truly wise approach would be to re-orient domestic conversations about the past and their present-day relevance for the nation itself.

With China’s formal celebration of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II behind us, Beijing and Tokyo should proceed by making progress on economic cooperation initiatives that have stalled in recent years. Reinvigorated negotiations toward a China–Japan–Korea free trade agreement give rise to hope that this useful addition will eventuate. In many ways it would be a natural follow-on to the trilateral investment treaty signed in 2012. It would signal that the Chinese and Japanese leaderships are indeed committed to being future-oriented in their handling of the relationship.

The past few years have also witnessed both Beijing and Tokyo testing their separate capacities in building up respective coalitions of the willing in the East Asian region and even beyond, over issues ranging from investment to maritime order. Factors feeding into this race include changes in United States policy as well as campaigns by some Southeast Asian governments, those of the Philippines and Vietnam in particular. For China, Japan and indeed the United States, it is becoming more and more obvious that no party can prevail in attempting to re-engineer the regional security and economic order as textbook geostrategic and geoeconomic mapping would suggest.

One suggestion is for China and Japan is to take a page out of Australia’s book in its handling of its security relationships. By conducting joint exercises, however low-level, with the US and Chinese militaries, Australia has demonstrated that the principle of inclusivity can play a role in handling the mixture of strategic competition and cooperation in the region. The Australian approach amounts to a separation of military affairs from economic ones. China and Japan should explore similar projects involving Southeast Asian countries.

Above all, positive synergy is what really matters in rescuing government-to-government interaction between China and Japan from its present downward spiral. Achieving this requires boldness, wisdom and the utmost care when making every move. After a four-decade long history of uninterrupted economic and societal interactions between China, Japan and other countries across the Asia Pacific region, there has to be ample political will to take the relationship between Beijing and Tokyo on to a more positive path.

Zha Daojiong is a professor of international political economy at Peking University.

This article appears in the most recent edition of the East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Japan–China Relations‘.