Uneasy ties bind China and Japan

Beneath a picture of the French and German leaders embracing at a D-Day remembrance service, the English language China Daily recently ran an editorial criticising Japan for its wartime legacy and failure to atone for past sins.

Imperial Japan's policies created lasting animosity among Chinese
Imperial Japan's policies created lasting animosity among Chinese

Barely a week earlier, the tone was very different.

Holding aloft his trophy, Japanese sumo champion Asashoryu received a thundering applause from the 11,000 mainly Chinese spectators who had paid up to RMB1800 ($215) recently to watch the visiting sumo team wrestle in a north Beijing stadium.

In the next day’s press, the event received glowing reviews and was hailed as a symbol of Chinese-Japanese relations’ success.

The apparent contradiction is a psychological reflection of a government that is balancing competing interests as it seeks to develop a closer relationship with neighbour and traditional rival Japan.

Unfinished chapter

Saying that these days China is more concerned with trade and constructive regional cooperation than Cold War ideology, Feng Zhaokui, a member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Japanese Studies Department told Aljazeera.net that the government is being restrained by two unsettling factors.

He identified them as: a strong anti-Japanese sentiment among the Chinese public; and a Japanese leadership that is not doing enough to lay their nation’s wartime past to rest.

Harbin in China was used by theJapanese for war experiments

Harbin in China was used by the
Japanese for war experiments

Unlike successive German chancellors, Japan’s leaders have always shied away from public expressions of regret, deferring instead to a 1995 speech by then prime minister, Tomiichi Murayama, in which an admission of errors was voiced.

Feeling that this is not enough, dozens of Chinese chat rooms, websites and print media continue to run commentaries on what they call Japan’s failure to apologise.

Even though many of those who use the internet were born long after the cessation of hostilities in 1945, one website that was protesting against the possible use of Japanese high-speed train technology in China, received over 87,000 signatures in just 10 days.

“Under Chairman Mao and Zhou Enlai (Mao’s foreign minister), the policy towards Japan was always seen as soft,” said Li Hanmei of the Beijing University Institute of Afro-Asian Relations. “Now the government is not so strong and they need to listen more to public opinion.”


Anti-Japanese sentiment, although reassuring to democrats more concerned about restrictions on freedom speech in the mainland, is often used as a crude means of promoting Chinese nationalism.

In one case earlier this year, a boat full of Chinese landed on a couple of barren but territorially contested islands lying between Taiwan and Japan. Although not directly involved in the scheme, Beijing did nothing to stop the boat setting sail nor did it deplore the attempt.

China is challenging Japan in theglobal economic sweepstakes

China is challenging Japan in the
global economic sweepstakes

Instead, the adventurers were labelled “patriotic” in the press, and after their arrest by the Japanese for alleged trespassing, the Foreign Ministry in Beijing demanded their immediate and unconditional return, saying that they had been “illegally detained”.

Such short-term posturing and domestic point-scoring disguises a more pragmatic attempt by China to build closer East Asian cooperation and boost its regional status through forums like ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), with which China is currently trying to establish a free-trade agreement.

Efforts to bring the traditionally pro-US Japan onside, however, have been frustrated by a freezing of top-level political meetings and public expectations of retribution each time the Japanese prime minister is seen to offend Chinese sensitivities.

Shrine diplomacy

A regular visitor to the Yasukuni shrine (a religious monument that remembers Japanese who died during the wars, including convicted war criminals), Prime Minister Koizumi has drawn criticism from both home and abroad for this apparent act of disrespectfulness towards those who suffered under Japanese occupation.

Quoted as saying he is not that concerned about the political relationship so long as economic ties are improving with China, it may be that Koizumi’s shrine visits do more than just appease Japanese right-wingers.

Koiziumi’s visits to the Yasukunishrine continue to anger Beijing

Koiziumi’s visits to the Yasukuni
shrine continue to anger Beijing

“Japan is mainly focused on its strategic and security interests,” says Feng of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “Japan is worried by both North Korea and China, and they believe that only the US – which is Tokyo’s biggest trading partner – will protect them.”

Feng’s observation is not difficult to understand in the light of the announcement last year that Japan was considering inclusion into America’s controversial missile defence shield.

By going to the shrine, says Feng, Koizumi is sending China a message that Japan sees itself, first and foremost, as an ally of the US.

Japanese commentators, though, have suggested that by this gesture, Koizumi is denying China the opportunity to play the ‘war guilt’ card to extract concessions from Japan. They also rule out the possibility of China giving up treating anti-Japanese feelings as a potential pressure-tactic tool, much less to start curbing such sentiments among its people.

Norio Tanaka, a representative of a major Japanese financial institution, explains: “Japan’s relationship with the US is so close, for the Japanese China is a difficult and worrying country.”

Cooperation inevitable?

With GDP growth estimates in China suggesting that the country will be the world’s largest economy by 2030, Japan cannot afford to ignore this awakening giant.

Already, says Ide Kenji, a minister at the Japanese Embassy in Beijing, Japanese companies employ over one million Chinese inside the mainland.

Over the last 15 years, total foreign direct investment into China from Japan has totalled RMB290 billion ($35 billion), with two-way trade in 2005 predicted to exceed $130 billion.

Scholar Li says China’s rulers nolonger can ignore public opinion

Scholar Li says China’s rulers no
longer can ignore public opinion

The impression is that Japan will try to be the bridge between the US and Asia, extracting the best of both worlds, although this may challenge China’s own hopes of being the regional power broker.

“Ultimately, Japan needs to have close relations with China as it is the new centre of the world,” says Tanaka.

Without reconciliation over recent history, however, it will be difficult for China to fully draw a line in the sand and move on, something that will prove near impossible as long as Koizumi continues to visit Yakusuni.

“Japan is worried by
both North Korea and China, and they believe that only the US – which is Tokyo’s biggest
trading partner – will protect them”

Feng Zhaokui,
Japanese Studies Department, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences

“Both countries need to improve their propaganda,” says Feng, the Chinese expert on Japan. “At the moment, they only report the bad news when they should be stressing positive thinking.”

In what could be a small sign of such thinking – as well as proof that at least a part of the population believes closer ties to be inevitable – Japanese is now the second most popular foreign language in China.

As for the cheers of the spectators at the recent sumo wrestling match in Beijing, they too perhaps spoke louder than the harsh words of more nationalistic Chinese.

Source : Al Jazeera

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