China-Japan Ties: One step forward, two steps back

Ashish Kashyap
B.Tech Student, Department of Computer Science & Engineering, IITM

Recent events have brought into sharp focus the prickly nature of Sino-Japanese diplomatic relations. The long and frequently sordid history between these two civilizational-states has often colored the diplomatic exchanges.

The recent controversy about the Japanese denial of Nanjing and its horrors is only the latest in a series of diplomatic gaffes from both sides. The events that transpired are simple – Nagoya’s mayor, Takashi Kawamura, told a visiting delegation of Chinese Communist Party officials from Nanjing that he doubted that Japanese troops had massacred Chinese civilians.This prompted outrage among Chinese intellectuals and public alike, considering the fact that most historians concur on the fact that thousands of civilians were slaughtered in the infamous “Rape of Nanjing” in 1937. The Chinese city of Nanjing has suspended its sistercity relationship with Nagoya as a gesture of protest at the incident.

The Nanjing issue runs deeper than mere suspension of diplomatic and trade ties between two cities. History and its hermeneutics are the subject of much debate by intellectuals on both sides. Revisionist historians from the Japanese side doubt the veracity of Chinese claims and portray it as a “propaganda effort” on the part of the Chinese Communist party. The Chinese regard the absence of any formal Japanese apology regarding the atrocities committed by its military as deeply disrespectful and abhorrent. The issue of unpaid war-reparations, which the Chinese people feel they are legitimately entitled to, adds to the sense of injustice felt in the Chinese psyche. In the recent past, the Japanese Prime Minister’s visit to the Yasukuni shrine, which honors Japanese soldiers during the Second World War (including some executed war criminals), evoked similar outrage. History has become an emotive issue between these two nations – it is a battle of memory against forgetting.

It would be wrong however, to assume that historical grievances are the only source of tensions in the China-Japan story. There is a territorial dispute as well. China has staked its claim to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea. The linkages between energy  demand and security policy are especially strong in the case of China and Japan – the two most powerful states in the Asia-Pacific region and the two leading energy consumers. The Fukushima disaster has only pushed Japan to intensify its search for alternative secure supplies of crude oil, thermal coal and LNG (seaborne liquefied natural gas) as replacements in the long run. In order to keep, as well as attain, high levels of economic growth, both countries need to secure additional supplies of energy in the future. Thus, the tensions between China and Japan may only increase over the possession of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands or in respect to the Paracel and Spratly islands. Both groups of islands in the East China Sea as well as South China Sea are of interest only insofar as they establish ownership over a large stretch of water that is believed to sit on top of valuable oil and natural gas deposits. There was a major flare-up in 2010, when a Chinese fishing trawler collided with Japanese patrol boats and a Chinese fisherman was taken into custody by Japanese security forces. China’s aggressive diplomatic posturing ever since and its recent vociferous objection to unilateral marine research in the East China Sea by the Japanese, is indicative of its growing clout in international affairs. The rapid military modernization of the PLA and growing Chinese naval power might exacerbate these disputes even more (especially, when the PLA Navy acquires true “blue water navy” capabilities). This growing assertiveness in Chinese diplomacy coupled with its military rise poses significant threats to regional stability.

Another threat to regional stability is the renewed US interest in the Asia-Pacific. The reorienting of US military and diplomatic strategy which involves a greater military presence in the Pacific (military bases in Australia among other places) as well as diplomatic initiatives to counter China’s rise are highly significant developments. The US-Japan-India trilateral summit, which was held in Washington, has put further strain on Sino-Japanese ties. The Chinese view this as a “containment” or “encirclement” strategy, in which Japan is no innocent bystander. The publication of the 2011 Japanese White paper on security highlights some of the strategic threats that Japan faces – one of them being China’s rise. China has already voiced its concerns at this Japanese portrayal, contending that China represents a “peaceful rise”. This antagonistic and mistrustful attitude of both the nations towards each other evokes grim memories of the cold war era. A re-militarized Japan threatened by an aggressive China, is a prospect that does not bode well for the region.

Yet there is still room for diplomatic maneuvering and positive exchanges between the two sides. China and Japan have economic ties that are mutually beneficial. The annual trade between the two nations is growing at a fast clip. In this age of economic uncertainty, caused by the European debt crisis, Japan and China have pledged closer financial ties. This move shall help develop the growing financial sector in China while at the same time aid Japan in countering deflation and fiscal deficit. Both nations have agreed to co-operate at the G-20 summit, to be held from 18-19 June 2012 at Los Cabos, Mexico in order to find solutions to reform the international monetary and financial system. Japan is also seeking enhanced diplomatic co-operation with China as it seeks the expansion of the UN Security Council and a rightful seat as a Permanent Member. Although the Chinese are apprehensive of any expansion of the UNSC, especially with regards to a Japanese inclusion, this represents a unique opportunity for both sides to engage each other diplomatically.

The Sino-Japanese partnership, along with the US-China and US-India relationship, has the potential to be one of the pivots of 21st century international politics. This relationship should not be held hostage to isolated incidents. The brouhaha over Nanjing, though morally justified, is misplaced in light of the costs of a diplomatic impasse. At the same time, the Japanese need to desist from subverting painful history. Both sides need to resort to legal frame-works and bilateral dialogue to resolve all out-standing territorial disputes. A measured, calibrated Japanese response to China’s growing militarization, which includes confidence-building measures with the Chinese, would be apposite. Any suggestion of “encirclement” or “containment” might trigger an arms race detrimental to both nations.

A lot more tact and a lot less posturing, is the need of the hour.

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of IIT Madras China Studies Centre)


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