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The Sino-Japan tussle: Origins, Impact and Implications for the Region

The Sino-Japan tussle: Origins, Impact and Implications for the Region
Date/Time: Aug 17, 2005 / 5.00pm

The tussle between China and Japan has continued to hit the international and regional headlines. Stemming from historical, political and territorial issues, the relationship between the two Asian giants hit an all time low earlier this year.

Prime Minister Koizumi’s annual visits to the Yasukuni War Shrine as well as Japan’s aspiration to be a permanent member of the enlarged Security Council continued to be challenged by China. The recent gas exploration in the East China Seasparked debate over territorial rights and this has added another irritant to the tense relationship.

Compared to the optimism a few years ago that increased economic interdependence between the two countries would lead to better relations, there are now concerns that the lack of historical reconciliation and increased competition between the two countries for leadership in the region may be bad for the region as a whole.

Eric shared his disappointment at the lack of reconciliation between the Japanese and Chinese at the 60th anniversary of the conclusion of World War II. Nevertheless, he took heart that three other reconciliations in Asia that seemed to have taken off. The first was the easing of tensions between the two Koreas. The second was the signing of the peace agreement on Aceh in Indonesia. The third was the Indo-Pakistani reconciliation.

Eric went on to present the Sino-Japanese relations in 5 main points. First, he painted the historical context of the Sino-Japanese relations. He pointed out the Tang Dynasty (in China) and the Nara period (in Japan) was the highest point of Sino-Japanese relations. The influence of the Chinese in Japan was evident even in the architectural aspect. While he broadly agreed with the popular thesis that both Japan and China had historically never been strong at the same time, he added some nuance to the thesis by taking the attendees through Chinese history after the Tang Dynasty till the present day. He also shared that a number of Chinese scholars in Beijing University (“Bei Da” or Peking University) have pointed out that the three humiliations inflicted on the Chinese by the Japanese in the 19th- early 20th century- - the Sino-Japanese war (1894-1895); taking Korea out of the tributary system and finally annexing Korea- were difficult to be forgiven. This desire to win back influence in Korea partially explains the current Chinese motivation in the 6-party talks.

Second, this history is increasingly complicated by bilateral irritants and domestic political uncertainties on both sides. On the Japanese side, there was an increasingly tendency towards right-wing nationalism. He highlighted the symbolic date of the Japanese elections- September 11 and suggested that this was a tactic by Koizumi to rouse nationalistic sentiments.

Within China, he pointed out that there was a change in the political climate with the Chinese moving away from, what some Chinese officials perceived as, a too “liberal” or “western” mindset to a more “socialist” policy in order to tackle the increasing income inequality in China. The concern was to ensure that the regime was not undermined from within by the dissatisfaction over the income inequality. With the 17th Party Congress approaching in about 2 years’ time, Hu has to place himself as the “people’s president” and consolidate his power by then.

Third, there was an intensifying Sino-Japanese rivalry in the Asia and the Pacific region especially in the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS). There was also concerted effort to win over India and Russia.

Fourth, there is a change of threat perception on both sides in how each of them sees the other. For instance, the Japanese published a Defense White Paper which named China as a security concern together with North Korea, irritating many Chinese. Within Japan, there is a rising sentiment that the Japanese have done enough to patch up with the Chinese. On the Chinese side, there is a fear that “when Japan becomes normal, it will become abnormal” and be militaristic again.

Last, Eric concluded with a twist that the Sino-Japanese relations could not be seen strictly as a relationship solely between the two parties. Instead, the US has a very important role in the region. Only when the Sino-US relations improve will the Sino-Japanese relations enjoy a strategic thaw.

Q&A Session

The first question related to the feasibility of an institutionalised forum in Northeast Asia to reduce bilateral tensions especially over Taiwan and the issue on Korean peninsular. Eric pointed out that there was an understanding in China and the US that Taiwan was unlikely to pose as an issue unless Chen Shui-bian attempted some unexpected measures. The Korean reunification was also proceeding much more smoothly than expected (by the US). Ultimately, Eric concluded that, the possibility of institutionalisation would depend largely on the four parties- China, Russia, US and Japan.

Another question was on the possibility of a strategic cooperation between China and Japan. The member of the audience asked if it was likely for the relationship to deteriorate further given the high volume of trade and investment on both countries.

Eric replied that trade and investment links were insufficient for the relationship to improve. When it came to the crunch, some Chinese might simply boycott Japanese goods. Despite the fact that the Japanese apologised about 18 times since the end of the war, it was still insufficient as the Japanese continued to visit the war shrines, suggesting a lack of sincerity.

One attendee asked how it was possible for such a large economy like Japan which had strong trade and investment links with the regional economies for so long to suddenly cede influence to China in such a short time. The attendee suggested that the lack of diplomatic energy from Japan to counter what the Chinese are doing in Southeast Asia and India was a result of the broken Japanese political system.

Eric agreed that the Japanese political system was paralysed (as evident in the stalled postal reforms) but disagreed that the system was broken. Instead, there were simply too many vested interests in Japan.

Another attendee questioned the overly pessimism of the presentation and asked how far China would go in pushing its contentious relationship with Japan. He pointed out that Hu had been trying to manage the protests to prevent them from escalating. He also asked about China’s intentions of restarting its traditional role in Asia.

Eric pointed out that the Chinese were also having coordination problems internally with intra-party struggle (even if this struggle was done “Chinese style”). Eric agreed that Hu Jintao was keen to patch up with the Japanese as evident in sending Wang Yi, a high level Japanese speaking official to become the Ambassador to Japan. However, he has not had much success because he was not able to engage with the various factions in the LDP. With the decline of the Hashimoto faction within the LDP, there was no longer a strong lobby within the LDP pushing for an improvement in the relationship with China.

Eric also agreed that the riots were managed in order to prevent them from becoming a threat to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The concern for the CCP was that the demonstrators would turn on the CCP for not being tougher on the Japanese. Eric pointed out that the Chinese had been very active in Southeast Asia whereas there was a perception among many Southeast Asian countries that the Japanese had not been as aggressive and concerned in their diplomatic efforts.

Nevertheless, the Chinese was playing a cautious game and not pushing their influence too hard. For instance, in the Zheng He exhibition in Beijing, there was a consistent message that the Chinese were peaceful even when they were in a stronger position historically. The Chinese are aware that they could not be too overly aggressive in exerting their influence in the region.

The last question centred on the prospects of the Sino-Russian cooperation and the forthcoming East Asia Summit (EAS). Eric replied that the Sino-Russia relations had improved over the past few years even to the extent of both sides holding war games together this week. It was also significant that Putin was also the first foreign leader Hu visited after he became the President. The fact that Bush criticised Putin on democracy and human rights issue at Bratislava also drew the Russians closer to the Chinese.

In terms of the EAS, India was increasingly coming into the equation with the Indians playing the Chinese and US against each other. There was even the possibility of the Russians bringing the Indians and Chinese closer together. The Indians were also keen to ensure that they would be included in any significant Asian integration initiatives.

In terms of the EAS, the Chinese game plan was to keep the US out. The Japanese initially counter-proposed a three tiered EAS framework with ASEAN Plus 3 members in the core; India, Australia, New Zealand forming the next tier; and US, EU, Canada and Russia at the third tier. This proposal was rejected for being too complicated.

The US would remain an important player in the EAS even if it were not physically present as it had solid friends who would be attending the EAS .eg. Japan, Australia, some of the ASEAN members and South Korea. Through these friends, the US influence would continue to permeate the EAS.

Report by Goh Mui Pong
SIIA Researcher


Dr Eric Teo served in the Singapore diplomatic corps for eleven years before joining the corporate world. In his role as Business Development Director for Suez, a Franco-Belgian utilities and infrastructural MNC, he traveled extensively around the region and had a good knowledge of the region. In 2001, he set up Savoir Faire Corporate Consultancy providing analysis on political and economic risks as well as East Asian countries. He has contributed to The Straits Times, International Herald Tribune, Asia Times, The Japan Times, China Daily and others.

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