China, Japan still far apart on Asia’s strategic future

Author: Amy King, ANU

In August and September 2015 Japan and China commemorated the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. The observance activities were keenly anticipated as a way of gauging the temperature of the China–Japan relationship. The commemorations showed that the two governments worked hard to prevent further deterioration in the bilateral relationship, but that China and Japan are still far apart on Asia’s future strategic order.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe marked the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender with a statement that came far closer to an official apology than most Japan-watchers expected. In his 14 August statement, Abe repeated the language of past official statements, including that of former prime minister Tomiichi Murayama in 1995, by using key phrases such as ‘deep remorse and heartfelt apology’ (tsusetsuna hansei to kokoro kara no owabi), ‘invasion’ (shinryaku) and ‘colonial rule’ (shokuminchi shihai).

But Abe’s use of the latter two phrases came only within the context of his pledge that Japan would ‘never again’ resort to practices of invasion or colonial rule. Though Abe referred to the ‘immeasurable damage and suffering’ that Japan caused innocent people at home and abroad, he did not explicitly describe Japan as having been responsible for invasion and colonial aggression in Asia.

Crucially, Abe’s statement linked Japan’s history of wartime aggression with Japan’s post-war and future contributions to international peace and prosperity. He pledged that Japan would continue to support values of freedom, democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law. He also argued that international disputes should not be settled through the use of force. In doing so, Abe implicitly depicted Japan as a supporter of the international order that China was attempting to challenge.

The response to Abe’s statement from China was one of muted criticism. Xinhua news agency described the statement as ‘lacking sincerity’ and criticised Abe for ‘beautifying’ the history of the Meiji era. Xinhua also criticised Abe’s statement that future generations of Japanese should not be ‘predestined to apologise’. But, in contrast to past practice, official media did not encourage popular anti-Japanese protests. Instead media reports in the lead-up to Abe’s speech sought to foster calm, rational responses by Chinese netizens to the Japan history issue.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry’s response was also carefully phrased to avoid inflaming anti-Japanese sentiment and cause tensions in the China–Japan relationship. The foreign ministry merely reiterated past statements about the importance of ‘looking at history squarely’ and would have been pleased that Abe’s statement repeated this phrase almost verbatim (‘kako no rekishi ni masshōmen kara mukiawanakereba narimasen’). More significantly, in response to the visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine on 15 August by a number of Japanese cabinet members, the foreign ministry noted China’s ‘strong dissatisfaction and resolute opposition’ but did not condemn Japan or urge retaliation.

Three weeks later it was China’s turn. On 3 September, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) held a parade that was simultaneously designed to commemorate China’s victory over Japanese aggression in 1945 and display China’s formidable military capabilities. The three-hour parade along Chang’an Avenue, in front of Tiananmen Square, was observed by CCP leaders, past and present, and involved 300 veterans of the War of Resistance against Japan, 12,000 People’s Liberation Amy troops and hundreds of pieces of new military equipment.

Seeking to place China’s contribution to the defeat of Japanese aggression in a wider global context, the CCP was eager for the participation of foreign governments. Yet although the military parade was observed by Russian President Vladimir Putin and South Korean President Park Geun-hye, among others, most Western heads of state and many of China’s Asian neighbours declined the invitation. Unsurprisingly, Japanese Prime Minister Abe was among those who declined to participate. Yet in a sign that Xi Jinping and South Korean President Park are eager to improve relations with Japan, Xi and Park used their meeting on the sidelines of the parade to agree to hold a trilateral summit with Japan in late October or early November 2015.

There is no doubt that China’s military parade was focused on the Chinese people’s ‘triumph’ in having ‘crushed the plot of the Japanese militarists to colonise and enslave China’, as Xi Jinping put it. In the weeks leading up to the parade, China’s CCTV aired many television dramas and documentaries telling the story of China’s War of Resistance against Japan.

Yet there were very few references to actual acts of Japanese wartime aggression during the parade. There was certainly no mention of the most heinous Japanese acts, such as the Nanjing massacre or the imperial army’s use of ‘comfort women’. As official Chinese media explained it, China’s commemoration parade ‘is not targeted at the Japan of today, is not targeted at the Japanese people, and has no direct relationship with the present-day China–Japan relationship’.

Instead, the commemoration activities were much more about China than about Japan. The key message the CCP sought to convey was that World War II marked an important transition for China. In his speech, Xi Jinping stated that 1945 ‘re-established China as a major country in the world’ and ‘opened up bright prospects for the great renewal of the Chinese nation’. This rebirth was depicted most clearly by the seemingly endless parade of high-tech air, naval and nuclear capabilities along Chang’an Avenue.

The commemoration activities were carefully designed to avoid further poisoning the bilateral relationship, but the events still depicted two countries that are deeply at odds over Asia’s future strategic order.

Prime Minister Abe has declared that Japan had learned from the past and was determined to make a more ‘proactive contribution’ to the post-war international order. Yet Japan’s ‘proactive contribution’ comes in the form of new security legislation and US–Japan alliance guidelines that will allow Japan to play a greater military role in contingencies involving China. At the same time, President Xi states that China ‘will never inflict its past suffering on any other nation’. Yet China’s massive military modernisation — displayed in the 3 September parade — is designed to deter any state that tries to change the post-war international order.

Though the China–Japan relationship has improved since the worst days of 2010–13, these two countries have yet to work out how to pursue a mutually acceptable future order in Asia.

Amy King is a lecturer at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, The Australian National University.

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