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History and Power Shift Fuel Sino-Japanese Rift

Dr. Abanti Bhattacharya is Associate Professor at the Department of East Asian Studies, University of Delhi. Prior to this she was Associate Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.
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  • August 23, 2006

    On August 15, 2006, the Chinese Foreign Ministry issued a statement strongly protesting Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's latest visit to the Yasukuni Shrine. Koizumi’s six consecutive visits since he took office in April 2001 have chilled Sino-Japanese relations, making the issue a major stumbling block in the smooth development of relations. The souring of Sino-Japanese relations over the last few years has been a result of the complex enmeshing of two broad issues: history and power shift. These have fuelled their competing nationalisms and shaped the present bitter contours of their relationship.

    The rise of China is the primary factor creating fears in Japanese minds, for it involves not only the emergence of a new great power in Japan’s neighbourhood, but also a power poised to dominate the region by attracting long-time American allies to its orbit. In fact, as Joseph Nye has rightly pointed out, China in many ways is fast emerging as a soft power that is economically becoming attractive and politically generating a spirit of harmonious co-existence. This is causing the erstwhile allies of Japan and the United States to gradually gravitate towards China’s orbit. The rise of China is thus creating a new balance of power in Asia, and the Japanese are consequently apprehensive of China’s growing military might and rising economic clout.

    In response, the Japanese are increasingly defining their state policies on the basis of nationalism and the present Koizumi government is shedding the pacifist approach and pushing Japan towards acquiring a ‘normal’ state status. Japan is today not only strengthening its alliance with Washington, but has also for the first time (in 2005) recognised Taiwan as a common security concern to both itself and the United States. This has indeed alarmed China, since reunification of Taiwan is central to Chinese nationalism. Reunification would remove the stigma of the ‘century of humiliation’ and enable China to once again acquire the great power status it once enjoyed. China’s opposition to Japan’s bid for a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) is also indicative of the logic of China’s urge to remain the sole great power in the region. In fact, both China and Japan are in the process of redefining their power positions in the international system, and the growth of assertive nationalisms in both countries is partly rooted in this process.

    Parallel to this power shift is the vexed issue of ‘history’, which has increasingly come to influence Sino-Japanese relations. Sino-Japanese disagreements have hitherto tended to coincide with an upsurge in Chinese nationalism. Interestingly, while China has relegated its historical animosities with most countries to the backburner and given preference to economics over politics, it regards history as the major issue impinging on political engagement with Japan.

    China has a deep sense of history, which flows from its powerful and flourishing civilization till the West ripped it open. Incipient in this notion of history is the Chinese idea of a Sino-centric world order. Till the advent of Western colonialism, China considered itself to be the centre of its civilizational world – the Middle Kingdom, which represented a civilizational state with no definite boundaries and exercised influence over peripheral states that accepted its superior culture and accorded to it the place of the head in the family of nations. In the Chinese sense, the ‘world’ encompassed those areas where Chinese culture spread and was assimilated. China was thus the leader of this Sinic world. This worldview, however, received its first shock during the Opium War of 1842, when the West – with superior military forces, entrepreneurial capabilities and missionary zeal – began to establish its supremacy over China. But the final collapse of the Sino-centric World order came with the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95, in which Japan defeated China and took over Taiwan. Chinese animosities towards Japan can be directly traced to this defeat. The war had far reaching implications in the sense that the superior Chinese civilizational state, which had for long treated Japan benevolently as a younger brother within its realm was defeated by the latter, thus fundamentally shattering the Chinese world view. Equally important, the loss of Taiwan to Japan marked an “extraordinary humiliation” for China. Reunification of Taiwan thus became firmly embedded in the Chinese nationalist agenda.

    Broadly, the issue of ‘history’ between China and Japan involves three major controversies: history textbooks, apologies and Koizumi’s visits to the Yasukuni shrine. These controversies are related to Japanese attitudes towards Chinese in the 1930s and 1940s when Japan invaded and occupied more than half of China, and in the process killed more than thirty five million Chinese civilians and military personnel and indulged in rape, looting and arson. The most notorious incident during this occupation was the Nanjing massacre of December 1937, which is estimated to have resulted in the death of 300,000 people. However, the Japanese deny the magnitude of this atrocity.

    Rooted in this historical controversy are China’s avowed aspirations of acquiring the leadership role in international politics and recreating the Sino-centric world order, an order in which it would emerge as a superior power vis-à-vis Japan and the US. Thus the Sino-Japanese friction over history has become inextricably linked with the ongoing repositioning of the two countries in the changing global matrix of power. The enmeshing of the two issues – power shift and history – has engendered deep hostility between them, despite the three Joint Communiqués signed by the two governments in 1972, 1978 and 1998.

    Also, economic interdependence, which has deepened considerably between the two countries, has failed to curb the deterioration in relations. Over the past thirty-three years, Sino-Japanese trade has grown 160-fold. In 2004, China became Japan's largest trading partner and Japan China's third largest. Reports from China point out that 20 per cent of Japan's overseas companies in terms of numbers are resident in China; 11 per cent of Japan's total output and 10 per cent of total profits are attributed to China. Yet, close economic interdependence has not translated into a close political relationship as underscored by liberal international theory, which claims that deeper economic interdependence creates favourable political ties.

    The key to understanding the deterioration in Sino-Japanese relations thus lies in the complex entwining of the issues of history and power shift, which have fanned the flames of suspicion and enmity.