22 April 2019
Japanese PM Shinzo Abe speaks with Chinese President Xi Jinping during a meeting at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing on Oct. 26. Pool photo via Reuters
Japanese PM Shinzo Abe speaks with Chinese President Xi Jinping during a meeting at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing on Oct. 26. Pool photo via Reuters

Can China and Japan ever become real friends?

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe paid an official visit to China two weeks ago and had a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing.

At first glance, it looked like Beijing and Tokyo were back on good terms with each other again.

But the question arises: Can China and Japan really settle their differences and strengthen their ties, or is the seemingly warm relationship between the two East Asian powers nothing more than a matter of political expediency?

To answer this question, we must first look at the big picture of Sino-Japanese relations from the perspectives of China’s entire set of diplomatic policies, and the global situation.

As close neighbors, diplomatic relations between China and Japan date back to ancient times. And for centuries, Japan has been deeply influenced by Chinese culture.

However, the Yamato people, as it turned out, had a strong sense of insecurity and were very aggressive, with the behavior linked by some to the fact that the country was lying on a seismic belt.

Following its modernization in the late 19th century, Japan began to eagerly look for a springboard on the Asian continent in a bid to expand its territory and influence.

Consequently, starting from Japan’s invasion of the three northeastern provinces of China on Sept. 18, 1931, right up until Aug. 15, 1945, when Japan finally surrendered unconditionally to the Allies, the two Asian countries were at war with each other for a total of 14 years.

Even after the passing of several decades, the Chinese people are still unable to let go that painful chapter in their history.

That may explain why as far as the Chinese people are concerned, their relations with the Japanese are based entirely on pure interests, because the pain which the Japanese invaders have inflicted on them is simply unbearable and unforgettable.

Besides, Japan is unlike Germany, which has fully admitted to its war guilt and completely got rid of its Nazi past.

As a matter of fact, there are three things about Japan which many Chinese people are still unable to get off their chest.

The first thing is the territorial dispute over the Diaoyu Islands, known to the Japanese as the Senkaku.

The second thing is the positioning and the constitutional status of the Japan Self-Defence Forces (JSDF).

And the third thing is visits to Yasukuni Shrine by Japan’s prime ministers and other government officials over the years.

Apparently, Japan has never budged an inch over these three solid and sensitive issues. Worse still, Tokyo has continued to toughen its stance on these matters in recent years.

That being said, how possibly can China truly lower its guard and develop normal diplomatic relations with Japan in good faith?

As far as Beijing is concerned, there is absolutely no room for compromise over the sovereignty issue of the Diaoyu Islands.

In the meantime, much to Beijing’s dismay, Abe has been working aggressively to seek to amend his country’s constitution so as to grant the JSDF full military status, a move that is widely seen by other Asian countries, particularly China, as a symbol of the resurrection of Japanese militarism.

And on top of that, the continued visits to Yasukuni Shrine by high-ranking government officials of Japan to pay tribute to what the world deems as war criminals have served as an unmistakable indication that the Japanese leaders have no remorse whatsoever for the atrocities committed by the Imperial Army during World War II.

Among other developments, the United States is currently mounting an all-out offensive against China in a desperate attempt to contain the latter militarily and economically.

The West has become increasingly alert to the rise of China in recent years, partly thanks to the projection made in 2001 by then Goldman Sachs economist Jim O’Neill that China is likely to overtake the US and become the world’s largest economy by 2041.

As a result, while Beijing is eagerly promoting its Belt and Road blueprint and is well on its path toward realizing the “Chinese Dream”, Washington is continuing to escalate its containment policy against China militarily and economically.

As the US exerts pressure, infrastructure initiatives under the Belt and Road initiative such as the high speed rail program in Malaysia, the Myitsone dam project in Myanmar and the hydropower station development scheme in Nepal have either been postponed or ground to a halt.

For China, switching to Japan for partnership has turned out to be quite a good alternative amid the raging Sino-US trade war. 

As for Japan, despite the nation’s unshakable alliance with the US, it is getting increasingly concerned about the possibility that the country might end up becoming a collateral damage under Trump’s “America First” policy and his unilateral approach to global trade.

That probably explains why Abe is eagerly extending the olive branch to Beijing.

Yet the truth remains, the cosmetic friendship between China and Japan is based purely on narrow self-interests, with both sides having their own agendas at work.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Nov 3

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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