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China and Japan: It’s Not about History

14 Sep 2015
National flags of Japan and China (R) are displayed at Tokyo's Haneda Airport on May 30, 2010. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao is on a three-day visit to Japan to hold talks with his  Japanese counterpart Yukio Hatoyama and business leaders.  AFP PHOTO/Kazuhiro NOGI

The memory of war might not be the crux in contemporary Sino-Japanese relations.

Considering China’s and Japan’s tense exchanges over wartime history, it is tempting to see their troubled relations as a consequence of historical animosity. Many believe that cooperative relations are impossible without a consensus on historical issues. However, this belies the cause of tensions: deeper strategic competition.  Comparison of contemporary and Cold War Sino-Japanese relations reveals that although problems regarding wartime memory persist, such tensions always coincide with periods of acute security competition.

History Wars

Those who argue that current animosities have their base in history point to rising nationalism in Japan and China, Yasukuni Shrine visits and history textbook controversies. Chinese analysis points to historical revisionism in Japan’s domestic political discourse. Western analysts cites “patriotic education” in China since the early 1990s.

However, this is based upon selective and inadequate readings of Chinese and Japanese political contexts. Nationalism has been a pillar of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) ideology since early 1930s. Ever since CCP’s founding, the Chinese public education system has always placed anti-Japanese resistance at the core of the CCP’s legitimacy. The patriotic education campaign after 1991 is not new and cannot explain the rise of recent tension. Similarly, Japan’s political discourse has not deviated significantly to the nationalistic right. Quantitative analysis of election campaign manifestos reveals that Japan’s governing Liberal Democratic Party has shifted its ideology slightly to the centre since 1996. Of the 86.8 percent of Japanese who have an unfavorable view of China, 55.1 percent explain this through “China is not complying with international rules” rather than historical disputes.

If historical animosity were the primary factor behind Sino-Japanese tension, it could be predicted that levels of tension should reduce as the memory fades or at least keep constant. However, the reality is the opposite. Levels of Sino-Japanese tension were significantly lower in the early Cold War (1949-1971) and late-Cold War (1972-1991) periods than after 2000.

Cold War Cooperation

In the year following WWII, fresh memories did not prevent the two wartime rivals from cooperating in post-war reconstruction. In the economic sphere, China and Japan signed the Liao-Takasaki Agreements between 1962 and 1964. By the early 1960s, Japan had become the largest trading partner of the PRC; this was partly the achievement of agreements negotiated by Chinese leaders (who were anti-Japanese resistance fighters), with Japanese business leaders (who had participated in the wartime occupation of China). Between the 1950s and 1970s, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai advocated that Japan should adopt a position of “peaceful neutrality”, and declared that Japan ought to develop a “self-defense military”. China’s acceptance of Japanese self-defense early in the Cold War is in clear contrast to China’s contemporary objection to Japanese military normalisation.

Even episodes of historical disputes in the late-Cold War period did not cause sustained tension between China and Japan. During the Nakasone Administration (1982-1987) disputes about history coexisted with cooperative bilateral relations. In 1985, Nakasone along with his cabinet ministers visited the controversial Yasukuni shrine, where Japan’s war criminals were enshrined. In 1982 and 1986, the Japanese Ministry of Education refused to approve history textbooks defining the Second World War as “Japanese war of aggression”, marking the beginning of a series of textbook controversies. Both sparked popular protests in China, however these episodes did not sabotage cooperative Sino-Japanese relations. China needed Japanese Official Development Assistance and technological import to modernise its economy and its interest in cooperation prevailed over conflicting interpretations of history. In addition to economic cooperation, China provided diplomatic support to Japan’s claims over the Kuril Islands against “illegal occupation” by the Soviet Union until the mid-1990s.

Contemporary Tension

Paradoxically, as wartime memory became increasingly distant, tension between Beijing and Tokyo has become increasingly acute. This can be attributed to the exacerbated security competition from power shifts in Northeast Asia. In 2009, the two economies were of equal sizes, but by 2013 China’s economy was 187 percent of Japan’s. More economic and military power enables Beijing to be more assertive in its disputes with Japan, including maritime territorial disputes. The changing power balance explains increasing Chinese assertiveness better than historical animosities.

Japan’s balancing of China emerged under Koizumi Administration in the mid-2000s which is characterised by explicit expression of security concerns and conscious efforts to prepare for military contingencies. By the early 2000s, Japan’s relative decline made it increasingly insecure vis-à-vis China. The 2005 Japanese National Defense Program Guidelines (NDPG) noted China’s defense modernisation, particularly with regards to strategic nuclear force and maritime activities. The NDPG was the first time China’s defense capability, instead of Russia’s, was labelled by Tokyo as having “major impact on regional security”.

Japan’s balancing strategy against China has been enhanced during the second Shinzo Abe Administration since 2012. Abe not only continues to express concern for China’s military modernisation, he is also preparing Japan for a military contingency. Japan’s latest NDPG places emphasis on “response to an attack on remote islands” which is clearly signaling a security concern that China might resolve Diaoyu/Senkaku dispute by military means. Several Japanese Self-Defense Force drills have simulated a conflict over remote islands, which is viewed with concern in Beijing.

Prime Minister Abe’s balancing of China is reflected in the increasing security cooperation with other US allies and China’s potential geopolitical rivals. For instance, Japan has begun to export naval weaponries to other US allies, such as Australia and the Philippines.  In a speech to a joint session of the US Congress, Abe pledged that Japan will support US rebalancing “first, last and throughout”; in Beijing, this was perceived as balancing against China. More than anything else, it is Japan’s “stubborn conviction” to “Cold War-style rebalancing” that undermines the Sino-Japanese relations.

Rather than historical animosity, the fundamental determinant of Sino-Japanese tensions is their security dilemma. Thus stable Sino-Japanese relations cannot solely depend on a common understanding of historical issues. In a more fundamental sense, cooperative relations between Tokyo and Beijing will only be possible when the security tensions between the two nations are alleviated.

Xunchao Zhang is an international affairs observer, sub-editor of ACYA Journal of Australia-China Affairs as well as a member of the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC). He is currently an intern at AIIA National Office. This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence.