Relations between China and Japan seem to reach new lows nearly every week. Both sides accuse the other of militarism and territorial aggression. On 3 March Xinhua quoted Qian Lihua, from the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, warning of the risk of open conflict: “At present we cannot completely rule out the possibility of clashes in East Asia”, he said.
Sino-Japanese relations have been on a downward spiral since a maritime collision in 2010, followed by Tokyo’s decision to nationalize the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands from their private owner in 2012. While deep tensions existed before these incidents, ties between the world’s second and third largest economies have deteriorated noticeably in the last 18 months. Anti-Japanese demonstrations – occasionally violent – have rocked dozens of Chinese cities, Beijing has established an Air Defence Identification Zone over the disputed islands, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the controversial nationalist Yasukuni Shrine, and diplomats on both sides have launched insults referencing Harry Potter.
On 8 March China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi ruled out the possibility of negotiation with Tokyo regarding territorial and historical disputes: “On the two issues of principle, history and territory, there is no room for compromise”, he said. It seems as though both sides now view the Sino-Japanese relationship as a zero-sum game of confrontation. However, the reality is more complex. Vital economic links and cultural ties bind the two powers. China’s leaders face a difficult task of managing a relationship with a country that is vital to China both economically and strategically, and at the same time widely despised by the Chinese public.
Chinese scholars regularly accuse Japan of being an aggressive accomplice to America’s regional ambitions. Qinghua University Professor Chu Shulong asserts that in the recent escalations Japanese Prime Minister Abe “forgot that Japan and the US are unequal. Japan can only move within the US chessboard, it cannot go out of bounds.” Shen Dingli of Beida University used a similar analogy: “Abe happily acted as a ‘pawn’. Though originally America used Japan, now in turn Abe is using America’s realized dream of Japan becoming a ‘normal country’.”
Yet the basis for the dispute lies further back in history and originates in the backwash from the Second World War. Both Beijing and Taipei base their claim to the Senkaku/Diaoyus on the November 1943 Cairo Declaration and the Potsdam Declaration in 1945. The Cairo Declaration, signed by Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek, declares in part that “Japan shall be stripped of all the islands in the Pacific which she has seized or occupied since the beginning of the first World War in 1914, and that all the territories Japan has stolen from the Chinese, such as Manchuria, Formosa, and The Pescadores, shall be restored to the Republic of China. Japan will also be expelled from all other territories which she has taken by violence and greed.”
As Japan established control over the islands after the 1895 Sino-Japanese war, both Beijing and Taipei assert that the islands should have been returned under the conditions of the Cairo Declaration. Last year Beijing’s ambassador to Egypt held a special event to mark the 70th anniversary of the declaration, while President Ma of the Republic of China in Taiwan hosted a symposium marking the declaration.
If that had been all there was to it, the issue might have been resolved. But in 1951, after the Second World War, 48 countries signed the San Francisco Peace Treaty. However, the signatories included neither Chinese Communists or Nationalists, nor any representatives of North or South Korea, none of whom were invited due to differences between Britain and America. The Soviet Union attended but declined to sign the treaty.
With hindsight, the treaty now looks like a major mistake and has often been characterised as a separate peace. John W. Dower, professor emeritus of Japanese history at MIT, considers these treaties to have caused friction in East Asia to this very day: “The Soviet Union attended the peace conference but refused to sign the treaty on several grounds, including the exclusion of the PRC and Washington’s transparent plans to integrate Japan militarily into its Cold War policies…Viewed from the perspective of the separate peace, the San Francisco settlement thus laid the groundwork for an exclusionary system that detached Japan from its closest neighbors.”
Regarding the territorial dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, it seems the relationship does boil down to a zero sum game. Japan controls the uninhabited islands; Beijing claims them are China’s rightful territory. Both sides accepted the status quo for decades, but tensions have escalated markedly in recent years.
The timing of the recent deterioration in Sino-Japanese relations – coming simultaneously with the American “pivot to Asia” – inspires this analysis. Chinese foreign policy scholars often see Prime Minister Abe as either exploiting the American presence for his own aggressive ends, or conversely America using Japan to cause trouble in order to justify its presence.
Many western experts, on the other hand, are more likely to blame the situation on Beijing’s increasing military heft and Chinese domestic politics. Mark Valencia from the National Asia Research Program explained how “China is feeling more confident both in its position and in its right to the area both legally and politically, and nationalism in China has gained strength and influencing the government.”
There is little doubt that the historical legacy of Japanese invasion, occupation, and war crimes are vitally important to Beijing’s political legitimacy. The Communist Party bases its authority in part on its success in driving out Western and Japanese Imperialists and securing China’s independence. At the same time, China’s leaders have used the legacy of the Second World War to legitimize both their claims over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and their fears over Japanese rearmament in the international arena.
Part of the Chinese government’s motivation for asserting control over the disputed islands is to keep the memory of Japanese imperialism alive in the minds of Chinese and non-Chinese alike. However, it treads a fine line between cultivating anti-Japanese sentiment on the one hand and preventing things from getting to a point where conflict is unavoidable or trade and investment relations are lost.
Even in the midst of a low point in modern Sino-Japanese political relations, economic ties between the two countries are deep and growing. Bilateral trade was worth $350bn last year. After a 10% decline in 2012 , Japanese exports to China rebounded in 2013. China remains Japan’s largest trading partner by a very large margin.
Increasingly aggressive posturing coincides with negotiations for a trilateral free trade agreement between Beijing, Tokyo and Seoul. There are hopes such economic integration may alleviate political friction. Writing in the Journal of Economic Integration, Srinivasa Madhur notes: “a China-Japan-Korea Free Trade Agreement can provide a channel for easing the political tensions in Northeast Asia, which have escalated from time to time in recent years and hence could help bring about the much-needed historical reconciliation among China, Japan, and Korea.”
Beyond the strong, mutually beneficial economic bonds between Japan and China are deep cultural ties. Many aspects of Japanese culture – including Zen Buddhism, Confucianism, and the traditional writing system – originated in China. On the other hand, Japanese pop culture has a huge influence in mainland China. Japanese manga cartoons and movies are popular amongst the younger generation. Sushi and sake are consumed with vigour in all major Chinese cities – although it is sometimes referred to as “Korean Sushi” in roadside stalls in order to placate nationalistic sentiments.
Beijing will have to carefully manage its relationship with Tokyo in the years and decades ahead. Short of an extremely risky war, there appears no way for Beijing to assert control over the Japanese-controlled Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. While the confrontational status quo offers some domestic political benefits to Beijing, it also risks economic ties, whilst cementing the alliance between Tokyo and Washington.