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Sino-Japanese Relations and the Korean Dilemma: From a Historical and Geo-Political Perspective

Sino-Japanese Relations and the Korean Dilemma: From a Historical and Geo-Political Perspective
Date/Time: Mar 15, 2007 / 5.00pm

15 Mar 2007 – In order to have a proper reading of present and future events in Sino-Japanese relations against the geopolitical backdrop of East Asia, Dr Teo’s method was to delve into the past to retrieve the cultural and political breaks and alliances between China, Japan and Korea. For Dr. Teo, the keys to understanding any rapprochement of relations are more political than economic.

According to Dr. Teo, 2500 years of Sino-Japanese history can be interpreted in five phases. The first phase (‘Relationship of Unequals’) from the Jomon Period (1500 BC) to the Tang-Nara Period saw relatively stable relations between China and Japan until Korea (Korean Kingdom of Silla) became a bone of contention in AD 663. While Japan adopted several cultural imports (ritsuryo, ‘castle town,’ and Nihon Shoki) from China, the conflict promoted a progressive ‘distanciation’ between the two countries, especially during the second phase of the post Tang-Hei’an Period in Japan. Moving away from ConfuscianismJapan introduced the Shogunate/Regent system and the bafuku/samurai system. The failure of the Mongol/Yuan Dynasty to invade Japan also afforded the latter with its first invincible mentality.

The third phase of the Ming-Marunouchi Period paved the way for formalization of relations between China and Japan especially in trade relations. However, the wako (Japanese pirates) problem at the time corresponded with China’s copper shortage – the latter had to rely on Japanese copper which led to the emergence of a Japanese economic sphere.

Japan’s distanciation from Chinese culture reached its peak during the fourth phase (Meiji Period in 1868), with a turn towards the West, establishment of Shintoism as its state religion, and conversion of kanji to katakana. Further breaks can be seen in Japan’s treatment of Korea as its ‘line of interest,’ humiliation of China during the Sino-Japanese Wars of 1894-5 and 1931/37-1945, and elevation of status as a ‘Western power’ during the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-05.

The fifth phase came about during the 1970s when former US President Nixon’s normalizing of relations with communist China created rifts within the Japanese polity, especially between the Tanaka (pro-China) and Fukuda (pro-Taiwan) camps. According to Dr. Teo, Sino-Japanese relations had their ups and downs at that time, which bore semblance to recent events led by former Japanese Prime Minister Murayama’s apology in 1995, and souring of relations under the Koizumi and Jiang Zemin administrations.

Analyzing the current leadership of both China and Japan, Dr. Teo felt that there would be a conducive ambience to some rapprochement in future. He referred to the examples of Abe’s landmark visit to Beijing and Seoul – his first visit to a foreign country as Prime Minister – and Hu Jintao’s ‘harmonious world’ concept as well as his attempt to depart from Jiang Zemin’s legacy of bitterness towards Japan.

Elsewhere on the Korean dilemma, Dr. Teo argued that the Koreas have proven adept in “playing China against Japan and vice versa” during their divided history. This telling power-play of Korea has pushed China to claim “big power” status at the six-party talks, to avoid remaining beholden to Pyongyang. On 13 February, a breakthrough agreement was forged between China, Washington and Pyongyang to freeze the latter’s nuclear facilities, while the interest of Japan was not fully met with respect to the Japanese abduction issue.

According to Dr. Teo, Korea will remain a core issue in Sino-Japanese relations in years to come, as China gains the upper hand over Japan and as Sino-Japanese bilateral relations improve in the coming years.

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