China-Japan relations analysis I: Battle over the past is spilling over into the present

24 Sep 2014

Disputes over history is threatening the long lasting postwar peace in the region


As China remembered the 83rd anniversary of the Mukden Incident – the prologue of a painful chapter of Chinese history – the drums of war were thundering in Asia-Pacific once again.


A recent poll by Japanese think tank Genron and Chinese newspaper China Daily finds that over half of the Chinese population anticipate ‘military conflict between Japan and China in the future’, compared to roughly 30% of their Japanese counterparts (see below). This poll is part of a ten year public opinion monitor project that shows a consistent growing antagonism between the two countries’ civilian population.

China and Japan have not been the best of neighbours in modern times. For centuries, Chinese dynasties maintained a hierarchical tribute system in the region, shaping geopolitics with a Sinocentric worldview.* Chinese hegemony ensured stability for the region, until its defeat in the Opium Wars which sent the Central Kingdom into the Century of Humiliation. Observing Western imperialists calving up China like a melon, Emperor Meiji of Japan embarked upon a radical course of reforms which modernised the country’s politics, military and social structure. As China’s brief effort to imitate Meiji Reforms shattered at the hands of reactionary rulers, Japan’s ambitions and aggression were blunter in language and bolder in action. Eventually, militarist Japan defied the lame duck League of Nations and established a puppet state in North Eastern China, paving the way to full scale invasion in 1937. The war lasted eight long years, atrocities committed by Japan during which were comparable if not exceeded that of the Nazis in the same period.


These historical issues are just as relevant today. For many decades, successive Japanese governments expressed ‘remorse’ but fell short of full apology demanded by victims of Japanese war crimes, including China, Korea and the Philippines. Surviving victims such as Comfort Women – sex slaves for the Imperial Japanese Army – imagined a Warschauer Kniefall. However, their wish was never granted. With Shinzo Abe returning the right wing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to office in 2012, a solution to these problems of the past has become an ever so remote possibility.


As the Financial Times noted, Sino-Japanese links enjoyed a brief honeymoon as both countries braced for leadership change with exuberance. Relations only “deteriorated rapidly again after Mr Abe’s visit in December to Yasukuni.” Yasukuni Shrine is the ultimate toxic of East Asian politics, as it inflicts memories of Japan’s World War II aggression, but also lies at the heart of Japanese culture. While China regards its existence as glorification of war crime, since it still houses 14 Class-A war criminals, Japanese consider it to be commemoration of the war dead, an equivalent of America’s Arlington Cemetery. This dichotomy explains the divergence of opinions in the Genron/China Daily poll regarding Abe’s visit to Yasukuni.


Territorial dispute is another legacy of the war. Senkaku, called Diaoyu in Chinese, are a group of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea. The race to claim territorial sovereignty by the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Republic of China (ROC) or Taiwan, and Japan began with the discovery of oil in 1968. Without speculating the motives behind such claims, disputes over sovereignty have dominated the region’s politics. These disputes often inflame sentiments of ultra-patriotism on both sides. None of this unrest, however, was any match for the anti-Japanese riots in China in 2012, following a Japanese mayor’s decision to purchase Senkaku. Protesters invoked the name of Mao Zedong and condemned Japanese ‘imperialism’. Things turned ugly when protesters started to loot Japanese stores and smash Japanese cars, even if they were owned by fellow Chinese. It resulted in hilarious scenes such as this Honda driver who decided to leave his vehicle and joined the mob to bust his own car. This embarrassing episode, which broke out on the eve of Xi Jinping’s ascendency, signified the explosive character of nationalism in China, which appeared to be slipping away from the Communist Party’s tight grip.


On the centenary of World War I, Abe drew a parallel between today’s China and Japan with Britain and Germany exactly 100 years ago, warning that trade ties do not necessarily lead to peace. This certainly seems to be the case, as Abe terminated Japan’s postwar pacifism and Xi spoke of ‘the Chinese Dream’ and ‘the great revival of the Chinese nation’ in his inaugural address. The two countries are on collision course, and neither party is offering anything more than cheap talk to calm the temperature.


Reflecting on those worrying poll numbers, an ominous fog of war is plaguing China, Japan, their neighbours and the world. The rivalry between two titans is turning from economic competition to potential military engagement. In a globalised world, these developments would plunge the world into disarray. As the West’s relations with Russia stagnate over Ukraine, and as Islamist extremism continues to tear the Middle East apart, the world cannot afford yet another conflict, let alone in one of the most developed regions, and between the second and third largest economies. Both Chinese and Japanese leaderships must find a fix to this tangled web of conflict, and revisiting the history books would be a good starting point.


By Noah Sin


Coming soon…

In the next piece of this three-part-analysis, Noah will look at what the future holds for the two countries by exploring the detailed findings of the Genron/China Daily poll in depth. The final part will examine the recent developments in the region, especially efforts by both Japan and China to woo India and Australia.



Extended reading

*For understanding of the Tribute system and Asia-Pacific, background of the region’s history:

David C. Kang, East Asia Before the West: Five Centuries of Trade and Tribute (Columbia University, New York: 1992)

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