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There is an old Chinese saying that goes, “Yi shan bu rong er hu,” and means, “Two tigers cannot live together peacefully on the same mountain” (Yang 322). The implication of this saying can apply somewhat well to Sino-Japanese relations in current times. For the first time in their modern histories the two countries are facing each other from a virtually equal power footing. In an international context, China’s economy and political power are both growing rapidly on a daily basis while Japan, over the last 50 years, has managed to become an economic force with competitive military capabilities and a powerful ally in the United States. As Joseph Y.S. Cheng puts it, “How a powerful China lives with a powerful Japan poses a question never experienced by the two countries in their modern history” (271). Kent E. Calder sets the stage even further by saying, “The stage is now set for a struggle between a mature power and a rising one”. Calder goes on to say that the current Sino-Japanese tensions are similar to those seen in the Anglo-German rivalry prior to World War I, and points out that “fluid perceptions of power and fear” are the preface to war (129-139).

Despite the perplexing and important question presented above, the purpose of this paper is not to present the opinion of whether Sino-Japanese Relations will turn sour or sweet in the coming future. Though this question is important and relevant to the subject matter of this paper, it seems, to this author at least, rather supercilious to make some official prediction as to whether or not Sino-Japanese relations will turn out to be a success. Instead, the intent of this paper is to thoroughly overview current perceptions and critical issues that are apparent and significant to the Sino-Japanese relations puzzle, particularly aiming to point out areas that may provide for difficulties within the relationship in the future. In addition, this paper aims to expound upon factors that are favorable to a mutually beneficial and friendly Sino-Japanese relationship, and finally, to draw conclusions as to what actions and/or issues have to be resolved for a mutually beneficial Sino-Japanese relationship to develop.

As far as general perceptions from one side to the other go, Japanese Foreign Minister Kono Yohei in 2000 said it best, “On Japan, there is distrust of China, and the Chinese side may have the same feeling” (Cheng 251). It seems that in the game of Sino-Japanese relations, one side never has its guard down: “While China is concerned about the increasing expansion of the Japanese military’s role, Japan is worried about the ‘China threat’” (Yang 306-307).

In general, China’s feelings toward Japan are not good. They most commonly sum up to fearful, unforgiving, suspicious, and mistrustful. As Thomas J. Christensen said, “Although they harbor suspicion toward the United States, they view Japan with even less trust and, in many cases, with a loathing rarely found in attitudes toward America.” (Yang 307)

However, Chinese cooperation has not always been totally at odds with the Japanese. In fact, for a period of time, both countries united in policy to fight a greater enemy: the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, when the Soviet Union collapsed, so did the course for improved Sino-Japanese relations. In fact at the time of the Soviet Union’s collapse, Chinese strategic planners considered Japan to become China’s main rival (Yang 307).

Furthermore, it can be said that Chinese concerns and mistrust are based primarily on two factors – historical legacy and Japan’s military capabilities (Yang 307). Where historical matters are concerned, China holds a grudge that will not be easily overcome; in fact, apologies made by the Japanese up to this point have been fruitless to expel Chinese resentment (Yang 307). As for the area of Japan’s military, it seems that in China the Chinese Communist Party insists on reiterating the effects of the war with Japan because its authority is somewhat tied up in its position as the defender and protector of China from the Japanese (Calder). Additionally, because of certain historical forces still in play it seems that the Chinese are very wary of Japan’s desire to become a political power (Yang 306). A further complaint by the Chinese is in the fact that the Japanese have recently tried to expand their influence over not only economic factors, but also political and military issues within China (Cheng 260). Jian Yang seemed to explain the Chinese sentiment toward Japan very well when he wrote, “A striking feature in Chinese society with regard to Japan is that despite deepened economic integration and increased social and cultural exchanges between the two countries, there is still strong anti-Japanese sentiment in China” (310).

In regard to Japan’s perception, a telling point comes from Jian Yang: “On the more problematic political front, although there is an increasingly strong desire of Japan becoming a ‘normal country’, an expansionist Japan is simply beyond the imagination of most Japanese. Concern over China is just one of many reasons for Japan’s ‘normal country’ ambition” (315). In essence, the Japanese do not seem to be aiming for the goals that the Chinese seem to think they are. In fact, Japan has seemingly been adjusting its foreign policy since the Cold War and responding accordingly to changes in the international power transfiguration (Cheng 259). It seems unlikely that Japan would become as it was during WWII, as that would only jeopardize its international position.

Strategically, Japan would like to have a more stable relationship with China; however, it has been interfering in China’s democratization process and human rights issues. Additionally, Japan is concerned and supportive of China’s economic reforms, but it is also afraid of China’s rise into power so it puts certain limits on its assistance. (Cheng 259) Robert Sutter says that, “Many Japanese view China’s size and remarkable growth as undercutting their country’s leading economic role in Asia” (37). Additionally, Japan feels that economic assistance given to China should be reduced as their economy grows. They also feel that they have compensated China for giving up its demands for war reparations and that they have not been shown any recognition or appreciation in response to aid given to China. (Cheng 266) The Japanese also tend to feel that China does not respect Japan and that to change this course of habit, engagement is a must. (Yang 316) In respect to the historical issue there is a long held belief in Japan that China is using the historical issue to keep Japan from playing a larger international role and truly has no interest in letting bygones be bygones (Yang 316). In relation to this, the Tiananmen Square incident of 1989 caused a large decline in the number of Japanese that held favorable views of China. “According to the Tokyo newspaper that conducts polling on this issue, the PRC’s favorable ratings have still not regained their previous levels more than a decade later” (Dreyer 375 ).

To break the framework of Sino-Japanese relations down even further, it is essential to cover the most pressing issues hindering the development of a mutually beneficial and productive partnership. The main issues include (but certainly are not limited to) the historical roadblock, the issue of Taiwan, the recurring problem of territorial disputes, the prevalence of Chinese and Japanese Nationalism, and the US-Japan Alliance.

The general historical issue consists of the grudge held by the Chinese against the Japanese for military aggression and mistreatment of the Chinese people during World War II. However, the historical issue really consists of several components, including the unsatisfactory apology, the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, and the “Revisionist” textbook scandal.

The unsatisfactory apology can be explained by simply stating that the Japanese have not been able to give an apology that is satisfactory to the Chinese despite repeated attempts. Granted, it seems from previous interactions that the Chinese simply want to see the word “apology” issued in an official statement and the Japanese could easily do it. However, times have changed and the majority of the Japanese people are not from the generation that saw and understood the level of cruelty inflicted upon the Chinese by Japanese military. Therefore, many Japanese feel that the Chinese are dragging out the issue unnecessarily. Considering that the time span of 50 years is about the same, the situation can be somewhat likened to that of the issue of slavery in the United States. It should still be a sensitive issue in the United States because technically it hasn’t been that long since slavery and discrimination were legal in the United States. Yet there are Americans that think African Americans are “pulling out the race card” to get preferential treatment. Joseph Y.S. Cheng summarized the political feelings on the subject by writing: “In the eyes of some leaders of the Liberal Democratic Party and the Liberal Party, the issue of an apology to China was a matter of diplomatic negotiations reflecting the respective bargaining strengths of the two countries. According to this point of view, unnecessary concessions would be a sign of weakness; and the Chinese government was not in a position to dictate the terms of the apology from Japan” (Cheng 255).

Regarding what attempts at apologizing the Japanese have made, the Sino-Japanese Statement issued on November 26, 2000, stated: “Japan agreed to abide by the 1972 China-Japan Joint Statement and observe the remarks made by former Japanese Prime Minister Murayama Tomiichi on August 15, 1995, while feeling profoundly sorry for the severe disasters and damage that Japanese aggression inflicted on the Chinese people in the past.” The Chinese noted the use of the word “aggression” but were not satisfied with the omission of feeling as the word “apology” was not given (Cheng 253).

The Yakusuni Shrine is another area of the historical debate that has caused much conflict and hard feelings between the Chinese and Japanese populations and governments. Repeated visits to the shrine by Japanese officials have caused protest from the Chinese people and government. Why? The Yasukuni Shrine, though built in 1869 for the purpose of honoring Japanese military, who died in battle, has evolved into a shrine to honor the dead for each successive conflict, including WWII. Since 1978, the Shrine has additionally honored 1,068 convicted Japanese war criminals, including 14 executed Class A war criminals (“Yasukuni Shrine”). Apparently, the fact that these war criminals are honored at the shrine makes the Chinese government feel that Japan is not atoning for its past transgressions. Wikipedia addresses the visits by stating: “Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's successive visits to the shrine, since 2001, have been a significant cause of outcries in China, South Korea and other countries” (“Yasukuni Shrine”). For China and other countries, the shrine represents Japanese militarism and nationalism (“Yasukuni Shrine”).

For the part of the Japanese population, there are mixed feelings. The majority of the population understands why the Chinese find the shrine offensive; however, the Japanese at this point in time do not have another place to honor their war dead. Some citizens have even asked to have their relatives removed from the Shrine (spirit only – the bodies are not buried upon the grounds), but they have been denied by the Shinto priests. There is still another faction of the Japanese that do not understand the meaning of the Chinese uproar concerning this Shrine. These are most likely the same faction of the population that does not understand why the apology is such a major issue. As Paul Wiseman explains, “To many Japanese, the Yasukuni Shrine is no different from Arlington National Cemetery in the USA: a place to honor their war dead. They don't understand why people in other Asian countries are so furious about Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's annual visits to the shrine.”

In addition to the war criminals housed in the Shrine, the Shrine has a museum that has been criticized for its revisionist interpretation of history. The museum shows a video that states that Japan ravaged East Asia prior to WWII because of imperial advances by the West and also has displays that deny that events such as the Nanking Massacre took place. Additionally, the museum puts out a pamphlet that says: "War is a really tragic thing to happen, but it was necessary in order for us to protect the independence of Japan and to prosper together with our Asian neighbors." It also says that Japanese POWs executed for war crimes were "cruelly and unjustly tried" by a "sham-like tribunal of the Allied forces" (“Yasukuni Shrine”). Also, the Shrine keeps up a website that explains the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the invasions of China and Southeast Asia this way: "To maintain the independence and peace of the nation and for the prosperity of all Asia, Japan was forced into conflict" (Wiseman). The website also defends the war criminals as victims of Western powers (Wiseman). Calder sums up the Yasukuni issue by saying: “Whatever the personal or political rationale for Koizumi's visits, Yasukuni is a flashpoint for widespread, if often ill-informed, international misgivings about Japan's foreign policies, misgivings that erode the regional and global effectiveness of Japanese diplomacy” (Calder).

The “Revisionist” textbook issue is yet another recent development in the historical debate between China and Japan. Apparently in the 90s, the Japanese government approved history textbooks that included “revisionist” philosophies on the war. By “revisionist”, it is meant that the aggressions and wrong-doing by the Japanese was downplayed to such an extent that blame is focused elsewhere and facts are distorted.

Another issue currently plaguing Sino-Japanese relations is the foreign policy stance of Japan on Taiwan. The Japanese government’s decision in 2001 to grant former Taiwan president Lee Teng-Hui a visa to visit Japan was a controversial decision that left China questioning Japanese motives (Yang 320). Furthermore, the Chinese have concerns regarding the Japanese decisions not to issue a formal statement regarding its policy towards Taiwan and not to exclude Taiwan from the scope of the Guidelines that it signed with the US (Yang 320). It seems that the main Japanese objective in not making their policy towards Taiwan clear is to keep the Taiwan situation from being resolved by force and deterring China from launching missile attacks on Taiwan (Yang 320). To China, the Japanese treatment of the Taiwan situation means that Japan is using Taiwan to contain China (Yang 320).

Regarding the Taiwan situation in the Sino-Japanese Joint statement on November 26, 2000, read: “Japan promised to abide by its stance on the Taiwan issue as contained in the China-Japan Joint Statement, and reiterated that there is only one China. It will maintain only unofficial and regional contacts with Taiwan.” (Cheng 254) Unfortunately, this statement by the Japanese government was too mild for the Chinese government.

In reference to the Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1995, Japan responded out of fear – fear of a rising China, and in retrospect, considering the substantial financial investments and geographical proximity of Taiwan to Japan, their response was understandable. In short, Japan’s response was to begin speaking of the “normal country” desire of Japan which only further exacerbated the fears of the Chinese concerning Japanese rearmament (Dreyer 376-377)

Recurring territorial disputes concerning the Diaoyu Islands is another area of contention for Sino-Japanese relations. Simply speaking, the issue is that both China and Japan lay claim to the islands. A more detailed account of the conflict includes actions in 1996 when a group of Japanese nationalists constructed a lighthouse on the islands. Apparently, they also put up a flag that was representative of forces from WWII and declared they would hold services on the islands to commemorate war dead (Dreyer 378). Chinese citizens and government alike were furious. Eventually, the lighthouse was removed from the islands, but other disputes have occurred over the islands including a law enacted by the Chinese government declaring it Chinese territory and a statement issued by Japanese media declaring that the Japanese government had signed contracts to lease one of the islands from a private owner (Dreyer 375-378). Whatever the action, it seems that the islands will remain an issue of conflict for the two countries for some time to come.

Nationalism for both countries is definitely an issue that causes some fear and suspicion. For the Chinese, Japanese nationalism means militarism and a return to older more dangerous ways. For the Japanese, Chinese nationalism means increased conflict and fear of the “China threat”. In response to the problem of nationalism, Jian Yang says, “Nationalism makes conflicts between China and Japan potentially explosive” (321). In spite of a great consensus that Nationalism is an issue that only aggravates the conflicts between China and Japan, Caroline Rose says that “because both types of nationalism were predominantly inward-oriented responses to domestic and external changes, relations between China and Japan remained relatively stable” (169). Rose further points out that, “In China’s case it is more often aimed at creating the illusion of internal unity in the face of a perceived foreign or domestic threat, and in Japan’s case at boosting popular appeal” (170). Cheng supports Rose’s claim by stating, “While nationalism remains an important force in China and Japan, it has not led to serious conflicts between the two countries” (270). It is apparent that nationalism plays into the current problems facing Sino-Japanese Relations; however, as to what degree, only time will tell.

The US-Japan Alliance is another area of distrust for the Sino-Japanese partnership. It seems there are several reasons for the US-Japan relationship to cause China concern including the fear that the US and Japan are out to contain China, the concern over Taiwan, the concern over military support and the rearmament of Japan and the US’s role in aiding it. As Cheng puts it, “In the eyes of Beijing, the security alliance system of the US, including the US-Japan alliance, is not only aimed at a common enemy, but also against a specific ideology or civilization” (271).

Finally, there should be some brief discussion concerning both the factors in favor of a mutually beneficial Sino-Japanese alliance and what must happen for this mutually beneficial and friendly alliance to occur. As Sharif Shuja writes, “In reality, the countries have too much to gain from mutual cooperation to let their ideological and other differences interfere with the establishment of improved relations.” Furthermore, Cheng states that Japan has been very supportive of China’s entry into the WTO. Additionally, Chinese leaders understand that isolation leads to backwardness, something that China cannot afford to develop. Only a stable relationship with Japan will support this (Cheng 262).

In regard to economic progress and cooperation, in 1994 Deputy Premier Zhu Rongji observed “three firsts” in Sino-Japanese economic relations: Japan as China’s number one trade partner, Japan as the most important source for technology for China, and Japan’s percentage of contracted investments ranked first in China (Cheng 262). It seems that both China and Japan are focused on their economic development, and that they believe that only a peaceful and cooperative relationship will produce this (Sutter, 39). Shuja really sums up the economic benefits to an improved Sino-Japanese relationship, “China has huge economic potential, and enjoys broad-based support from the developing world. Japan is a strong economic and technological power, and plays an important role among industrialized countries. Therefore, Sino-Japanese bilateral cooperation and interdependence are not only beneficial for the two countries and the Asia-Pacific region; they are also of significance for promoting global cooperation and economic development” (Shuja).

As to what must happen to facilitate this new mutually beneficial Sino-Japanese relationship, Calder says that an increase of multilateral contacts through official mechanisms and unofficial relations through NGOs is a must and that increased trilateral cooperation between the US, Japan, and China would make possible a more productive and trusting relationship. Shuja reiterates this thought: “More active dialogue and consultation between Japan and China will help to create a calmer atmosphere in bilateral relations.”

In reference to the multiple separate issues facing the current world of Sino-Japanese Relations, actions must be taken to clam them or a more trusting relationship will never be able to develop. The historical issue is probably the most sensitive issue, but it is also probably the most important issue needing resolution. It would seem that one of two things could happen regarding the apology issue: either Japan could give in and issue yet another apology, this time using a wording that Chinese officials would be happy with or the Chinese government could accept past apologies as being genuine and move on. It would seem that either action has some element of impossibility to it. Political forces in Japan will most likely not allow such an apology to be made to China, and the Chinese wound has been nurse for so long, one wonders if even the apology would assuage it. Regarding, the Yasukuni Shrine, there are several options including building a new official memorial to be used to honor the dead and/or removing the names of the war criminals from the current shrine. There are several other suggestions out there, as to which option the government will take, no one knows. One thing is for sure, the continued visits by government officials to the shrine will prove to the Chinese that they have a good reason for their distrust. Regarding Taiwan, it would seem that Japan could go further on their public policy than previously mentioned; however, the reasoning behind their actions is understood. Nevertheless, Taiwan is extremely important to China, and Japan needs to take this into consideration when going over foreign policy toward Taiwan. The situation has extreme potential for explosiveness. As to the Diaoyu Islands Dispute, the countries could consider divvying up the islands. This issue seems to be one of the more trivial ones that could go later on the agenda for issues to address. As stated previously, Nationalism is still in debate as to how detrimental it has been to the Sino-Japanese relationship. It would seem that as long as the two nations are controlling domestic nationalism, it would not become such a large obstacle to surmount. Finally in reference to the US-Japan alliance, it would seem wise for the US and Japan to bring China in on more of the discussion and to hold some trilateral dialogues on current problem issues between the nations.

In conclusion, it would seem that there is no one answer to the Sino-Japanese question of how will the relationship play out in the future. It would seem that without considerable multilateral dialogues and resolution to some hot topic issues, the relationship does not look promising. However, it is important to remember that in a volatile and unpredictable world anything can happen and whatever predictions one makes for a situation are really just that: predictions.
Works Cited
Calder, Kent E. “China and Japan’s Simmering Rivalry.” Foreign Affairs 85

(2006): 129-139.

Cheng, Joseph Y.S. “Sino-Japanese Relations in the Twenty-first Century.”

Journal of Contemporary Asia 33 (2003): 251-273.

Dreyer, June Teufel. “Sino-Japanese Relations.” Journal of Contemporary China

10 (2001): 373-385.

Rose, Caroline. “ ‘Patriotism is not taboo’: Nationalism in China and Japan and

Implications for Sino-Japanese Relations.” Japan Forum 12 (2000): 169 181.

Shuja, Sharif M. “China-Japan Relations: From Antagonism to Adjustment.”

Australia and World Affairs 36 (1998): 33-40.

Sutter, Robert. “China and Japan: Trouble Ahead?” The Washington Quarterly

25 (2002): 37-49.

Yang, Jian. “Sino-Japanese relations: Implications for Southeast Asia.”

Contemporary Southeast Asia 25 (2003): 306-327.

"Yasukuni Shrine." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 5 Apr 2006, 03:32 UTC.

17 Apr 2006, 01:55


Wiseman, Paul. “Tokyo shrine a focus of fury around Asia.” USA Today

(06/23/2005): 8. All Rights Reserved.

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