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3.2  History of China-Japan Relations

1 February 2017

Early History of China-Japan Relations


The relationship between China and Japan was one of rivalry from the moment that they first acknowledged each other around 200 BC and that rivalry intensified up to the 7th century. At a time when East Asian countries paid tributes to the Chinese emperor, as part of the tributary system, and were considered by China as being either barbarians or uncivilised, Japan was unwilling to be subordinated to China. Even though it was culturally influenced by China through its importation of Chinese-style culture, language, political institutions, and government structures, it never considered itself inferior. Hence, for the first thousand years, their relations were marked not only by rivalry but also a tinge of mutual disdain with the Chinese dynastic courts always trying to regard Japan as a semi-vassal state and the Japanese returning the contempt.[1]


Despite the rivalry, the two countries still maintained a cordial diplomatic relations. This was even so after the Opium Wars when the Chinese were flatly defeated by the British. In 1871, China and Japan signed the Sino-Japanese Friendship and Trade Treaty treating each other on equal terms. The relationship became unequal only after the Meiji Restoration, which began in 1868, when Japan became a modern state through learning from the West. In 1895, the two navies fought the first Sino-Japanese War (甲午战争) which led to the signing of the unequal Shimonoseki Treaty (马关条约) in which the Qing Dynasty agreed to cede Formosa (now Taiwan), including Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands to Japan, in addition to a huge sum of reparation. Even so, relations didn’t deteriorate irrevocably at that time. As China embarked on its own modernization, Japan, which was already a modern state, became a convenient model that China could emulate. Many Chinese scholars travelled to Japan during this period to study the workings of a modern state, including its laws, its organs of government, and the concept of constitutional monarchy.


The critical turning point for Japan-China relations in the modern era came with the Twenty-one Demands (二十一條) that Japan submitted to China in 1915. The Japanese requests included five groups of secret demands. Groups One and Two were designed to confirm Japan’s dominant position in Shandong, southern Manchuria, and eastern Inner Mongolia. Group Three would give Japan control over a mining and metallurgical complex, in central China, which was heavily in debt to Japan. Group Four forbade China from giving any further coastal or island concessions to foreign powers except for Japan. The most outrageous was Group Five which required China to install Japanese advisors who could take effective control of Chinese government, economy, and military. These demands would have had a similar impact to that of what the Japan-Korea Annexation Treaty had on Korea in 1910.[2]


Though a much water-downed version was signed later by Yuan Shikai which gave Japan nothing more than what they already had, the demands triggered a upsurge in nationalism and a widespread anti-Japanese backlash in China, including a nationwide boycott of Japanese goods. The ground swell eventually helped fuelled the radical May Fourth Movement (五四运动) which was an anti-imperialist, cultural, and political movement growing out of students’ protest in Beijing on 4 May 1919 against the Chinese government's weak response to the Treaty of Versailles, allowing Japan to receive territories in Shandong which had been surrendered by Germany for their defeat in World War I.


By the 1930s, Japan’s wild ambitions took another notch up. Their occupation of Manchuria in 1931 culminated eventually to the second Sino-Japanese War of 1937-45 during which Japan mounted a full-scale invasion of China and committed horrific atrocities including the Nanjing massacre, the abduction of Chinese women their coercion into prostitution to serve the Japanese Imperial Army as ‘comfort women’, and the covert and inhumane biological and chemical warfare experimentation conducted on the Chinese by Unit 731 of the Imperial Japanese Army.


In short, the series of conflicts driven by Japan undisguised militarism spanning five decades (1895 – 1945) between 19th and 20th centuries left not only raw wounds but also a myriad of bitter unresolved legacy issues which would come back to haunt the two countries time and again.[3]

1950s: China-Japan Relations in Post WWII


The 1950s saw the Japanese government having to deal with the governments of both mainland China and Taiwan. As they competed for Japan’s friendship, both governments outwardly downplayed the issues of wartime responsibility even though they were disseminating anti-Japanese propaganda at home to enhance their legitimacy based on their role in resisting and defeating Japanese aggression.


The nationalist government of Taiwan led by Chiang Kai-shek, for example, advocated a “dualistic” view arguing that the Japanese people and the Japanese military were two separate entities. Responsibility for the war thus lay with a clique of militarists. The Japanese people and even the majority of rank-and-file soldiers were victims, like the Chinese.


To weaken the influence of nationalist Taiwan in Japan, the communist China also proclaimed the innocence of the Japanese people and laid the blame squarely on the militarists. China’s goal was to enlist influential pro-Chinese figures in the private sector to lobby for eventual recognition of the Communist government and to provide support for Japan’s leftists and anti-American forces. This was the origin of the Japan-China friendship movement. In this context, the issues of wartime responsibility were thus secondary.


Despite downplaying the issue of wartime responsibility, Chiang had decided initially to seek reparations from Japan amounting to more than $51.5 billion. But as US priorities for Japan shifted towards using it to contain the rise of communism, the Allied powers agreed in principle to forego compensation to facilitate a speedy reconstruction of Japan. Hence, under the Sino-Japanese Peace Treaty concluded on April 28, 1952, the Republic of China waived all claims to reparations.


1960s: Broadening Unofficial Contacts


After WWII, China's insisted that Japan repeal its security treaty with the United States and end its official relations with the Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist Party) government which had retreated to Taiwan. However, both countries did not allow their political differences stand in the way of broadening unofficial contacts. In the mid-1950s, they exchanged an increasing number of cultural, labor, and business delegations.


By 1962, Sino-Japanese relations, though still far short of diplomatic recognition, had been elevated to semi-official status with the signing of a five-year trade memorandum (1963-67), better known as the Liao-Takasaki Agreement. Under its terms, Chinese purchases of industrial plants were to be financed partly through medium-term credits from the Japan Export-Import Bank. The accord allowed China to open a trade mission in Tokyo and paved the way for the Japanese government to approve, in 1963, the export to China of a synthetic textile manufacturing plant valued at around US$20 million, guaranteed by the bank. By the mid-1960s, Japan became China's largest trading partner accounting for more than 20 percent of China's total trade.


During the radical phases of the Cultural Revolution in China, from 1966 to 1969, relations cooled noticeably amidst massive political and economic chaos. As the turmoil subsided, however, the Japanese government adopted a more proactive posture. In 1971, Japan was shocked by US President Nixon’s historic visit to China. Even though it felt abandoned by the US, the US-China rapprochement actually allowed Japan more room to set its own China policy. However, relations remained complicated because of Japan's diplomatic and substantial economic ties with Taiwan and of the presence of a powerful pro-Kuomintang faction in the LDP.


1970s: The Normalization of China-Japan Relations


The Chinese and Japanese trade liaison offices began to discuss the possibility of restoring trade relations in 1971. In 1972, against dissent within his party, Prime Minister Tanaka visited Beijing where the two countries signed a joint communiqué to formally established diplomatic relations. The communiqué resulted in the severing of official relations between Japan and the Republic of China (ROC, Taiwan) and the official recognition of People’s Republic of China (PRC) as the sole government of China. For its part, China waived its demand for war indemnities from Japan.


Negotiations on a formal peace treaty then began in 1974 against opposition from the pro-Taiwan parliamentary groups in the Diet comprising of the Japan-ROC Diet Members’ Consultative Council and the rightwing Seirankai. The negotiations soon hit a snag when China insisted on including in the treaty an anti-hegemony clause directed at the Soviet Union. Japan, wishing to adhere to its "equidistant" or neutral stance in the Sino-Soviet confrontation, objected and the talks were broken off in September 1975. In 1976, the death of Mao Zedong brought to the fore a leadership dedicated to economic modernization and was more open to a compromise. Meanwhile, a changing climate of opinion in Japan that was more willing to ignore Soviet protests and to accept the idea of "anti-hegemonism" as an international principle. Before the talks could resumed, however, a dispute involving the intrusion of armed Chinese fishing boats into the waters off the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands flared up in April 1978 and threatened to scuttle the developing momentum. Restraint on both sides led to an amicable resolution and talks on the peace treaty were resumed in July. An agreement was reached in August on a compromise version of the anti-hegemony clause. The Sino-Japanese Treaty of Peace and Friendship was signed on August 12 and came into effect October 23, 1978.


The signing of the treaty of peace and friendship brought relative calm to the relationship amd heralded an era of close ties between the two countries. After the signing of the treaty, Vice-Premier Deng Xiaoping visited Japan in 1978. With respect to the islands dispute, Deng proclaimed: "Our generation is not wise enough to find common language on this [Diaoyu/Senkaku] question. The next generation will certainly be wiser. They will surely find a solution acceptable to all."

Several factors contributed to the warming up of relations between China and Japan and facilitated the diplomatic normalization process in the 1970s.


Firstly, after the withdrawal of the Soviet experts from China in the 1960s and the radical phases of the Cultural Revolution, from 1966 to 1969, the Chinese leaders were in dire need for help to spur growth and development.  Its eagerness in seeking foreign capital and technical assistance to develop its economy dovetailed with Japan’s outward-looking strategy of seeking new markets for its exports and new sources of energy and raw materials for its manufacturers. Japan's active involvement in China’s economic modernization also reflected a determination to draw China into gradually expanding links with Japan and the West and to reduce the China’s interest in returning to its more provocative foreign policies of the past.


Secondly, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in Japan entered the 1970s split between pro-Taiwan and pro-mainland forces. The normalization was facilitated by the pro-China wing which wielded genuine clout under the leadership of Kakuei Tanaka and Masayoshi Ohira. At the governmental level, there was also a comparable group of experts within the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a group known as the “China school,” which pursued a variety of unofficial diplomatic channels. Familiar with the Chinese style of negotiation, they were skilled at breaking through stalemates by reading between the lines of official Chinese positions and ascertaining what the Chinese actually wanted. Working closely with the pro-China faction of the LDP, they could pull political strings when needed to help resolve disputes between the two governments. Meanwhile, taking full advantage of the pro-Chinese tendencies of the Tanaka and Ohira factions were Beijing’s “Japan hands,” led by Liao Chengzhi. Liao and his followers had carried out covert operations in Japan since the 1950s; they understood the ins and outs of Japanese politics and were well versed in the means of influencing policy behind the scenes. In the absence of a basic agreement between the two countries, the pro-China faction of the LDP played an important buffering role to prevent disputes from escalating while facilitating collaborative political solutions between the “China school” of the Japanese Foreign Ministry and the “Japan hands” in the Chinese government.[4][5] 


Finally, the 1972 visit to China by US President Nixon, motivated too by geopolitical concerns relating to Soviet Union, certainly helped to also speed up the normalization of Sino-Japan relation.


1980s: The Golden Age of China-Japan Relations

The 1980s is widely regarded as the golden age of Japan-China relations.[6]

Economically, Japan was not only a major trading partner but also a leading source of capital, technology, and equipment as well as assistance in promoting economic development in China. Bilateral trade exploded from the US$1 billion in the early 1970s to more than US$8 billion in 1982. Although its share of Japan's global trade was small at 3 percent in 1982, China became Japan's sixth largest trading partner while Japan had been China largest since the mid-1960s. To Japan, China was a significant source of energy resources and strategic minerals, such as tungsten and chromium, and an important market for Japanese steel, machinery plant equipment, chemical products, and synthetic textile fibers. The Japanese were heavily involved in China's oil industry and were helping with drilling in the Bohai Gulf. As of 1983, the Overseas Economic Cooperation Fund, Japan's official aid organization, had agreed to grant US$3.5 billion in loans to China for basic infrastructure projects, such as port and rail modernization. Japan also became China's largest creditor, accounting for nearly half of the estimated US$30 billion in credit China lined up from 1979 to 1983. Japan Export-Import Bank, for example, extended US$2 billion for oil exploration and coal mining at a 6.25 percent annual interest rate, the lowest rate China had gained from any country at that time.

Culturally, at the people level, the visit of 3,000 Japanese youth to China in 1984 at the invitation of Secretary General Hu Yaobang and China National Youth League helped Japanese build a positive attitude towards China. Conversely in China, Japanese pop culture - music, drama, and manga - was becoming popular with young Chinese people. Public opinion survey conducted then shows more than 70 percent of Japanese respondents had an affinity for China, and the figures were also pretty high on the Chinese side.[7]


Politically, however, despite the personal rapport between Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone (1982–87) and General Secretary Hu Yaobang, relations were often strained by issues such as Japan’s 1982 and 1986 revisions of history textbooks to soften accounts of past Japanese aggression against China and Nakasone’s 1985 visit to Yasukuni Shrine which the Chinese regarded as a symbol of unrepentant militarism because the shrine honours fourteen Class A war criminals. Meanwhile, in Japan, a significant group of LDP politicians were unhappy with Tokyo’s continued “appeasement” of Beijing. It was the influence of the pro-China faction that kept Japan-China relations on an even keel during a time fraught with potential conflicts.


Geopolitically, Soviet military power was growing in East Asia in the early 1980s Until the late 1970s, China appeared more alarmed than Japan about the Soviet military buildup in Asia. But as the Soviet Union increasingly sought to impede strategic cooperation among Japan, the United States, and possibly China, in part by stepped-up intimidation of Japan, the Nakasone government became more concerned about the Soviet military buildup. Common concerns over regional security issues thus prompted the two nations to confer and to pursue parallel foreign policies designed to check Soviet influence and promote regional stability.


Thus, common strategic concerns, as well as economic interests, held the two nations together. While Japanese enthusiasm for the Chinese market waxed and waned, broad strategic considerations in the 1980s steadied Tokyo's policy toward Beijing. In fact, Japan's heavy involvement in China's economic modernization reflected in part a determination to encourage peaceful domestic development in China, to draw China into gradually expanding links with Japan and the West, to reduce China's interest in returning to its more provocative foreign policies of the past, and to obstruct any Sino-Soviet realignment against Japan.


Notwithstanding, relations between the two countries suffered a minor setback wth the removal of party chief Hu Yaobang in 1987. Hu had by then built personal relationships with Nakasone and other Japanese leaders. His departure was thus detrimental to smooth Sino-Japanese relations. Relations were again dented in 1989 when the Tiananmen massacre of prodemocracy demonstrators discredited China's communist leaders in the minds of Japanese people, making it more difficult for Chinese officials or Japanese politicians to raise China-related issues in Japanese domestic politics. To align itself with the United States and other Western countries, where policymakers were forced by popular opinion and domestic pressures to condemn the crackdown and take punitive action, Japan held back for one year the disbursement of ¥810 billion in aid, which Japan had promised in 1988 to give China in the 1990-95 period.[8] On the whole, though, Japanese policymakers realized that the new situation in China was extremely delicate and required careful handling to avoid Japanese actions that would push China further away from reform.


1990s: Changes in International Environments Magnifying Differences


The memory of the Tiananmen Incident soon faded and Japan was among the firsts to restore closer economic and political relations with China. In 1992, the LDP government succeeded in bringing about the emperor’s historic visit to China, a gesture that the Chinese had long sought.


The early 1990s, however, was a time of dramatic change in the international environment with the disintegration of Soviet Union in 1991. The end of cold war rendered obsolete the common goal of the US, Japan and China to contain the Soviet threat. Within Japan, the 1990s also marked the beginning of the end for the old LDP political machine. The electoral reforms of the mid-1990s greatly diminished the role of the factions in electoral politics, bringing to a close an era in which the pro-China bloc of the LDP had a stabilizing effect on Japan-China relations.


Against that background, differences between the two countries, particularly over the issue of the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, moved to the forefront and even became magnified. Taiwanese and Chinese activists staged protests in front of Japanese embassies in 1990 when the Japanese government accepted the Japanese activists’ application to declare the Uotsuri lighthouse official. There were also attempts by Taiwanese activists to land on the Islands to leave an Olympic torch as a symbol.


By the second half of the 1990s, political tensions between the two countries grew increasingly pronounced. In 1996, detainment of fishing boats approaching to what Japan considered its territorial waters led to attempts by pro-China Hong Kong activists to land on the disputed islands. The crisis reached its highest point when one activist drowned after jumping into the water. To restore relations, the Japanese Prime Minister Hashimoto visited his counterpart Li Peng in Beijing in 1997. This was followed by seven rounds of bilateral negotiations which culminated in November that year in the signing of the Fisheries Agreement on shared management of fishery resources located in the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands.


2000s: Politically Cool, Economically Hot


After the turn of the century, diplomatic ties sank to a new low under the administration of Jun’ichiro Koizumi (2001 – 06). The two countries’ increasing economic interdependence did little to quell their political disharmony as top-level contact between the two countries ground to a halt. Relations between the two countries were described as seirei keinetsu—politically cool, economically hot.


Tensions again rose when Chinese maritime research ships started exploration in 2004 in the Chunxiao natural gas field, an area of the East China Sea adjacent to the mid-point maritime demarcation line between Japan and China. The root of that dispute could be traced back to the 1982 third United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) legitimizing a 12-nautical-mile territorial water from the shore base line and a 200 nautical miles "exclusive economic zone" (EEZ) for a seaboard or island state as well as a coastal state's "sovereign rights" to explore and exploit its continental shelf. The convention went into force in 1994. As a continental state, China stands to gain from the most generous delimitation of its continental shelf. In contrast, as an island state, Japan would seek to claim a maximum permissible area around it as the exclusive economic zone. In that dispute, Chunxiao natural gas field sits on China’s continental shelf but it also lies adjacent to the mid-point maritime boundary. Since China does not recognize the mid-point line as a maritime boundary, as far as China is concerned, it has all rights to explore and exploit the Chunxiao natural gas field based on UNCLOS’s regulations.


In March 2004, Chinese activists also landed in the Uotsuri Island where the Japanese constructed the lighthouse in 1978.[9] A year later, in an effort to calm Chinese activists, Japan “proposed to China the joint development of four natural gas fields, which straddle the median line suggested by Japan and lie between the two areas proposed by China.”[10] A final agreement was reached in June 2008. Despite so, nationalist feelings arising from sovereign claims over the disputed Islands continued to fester and attempts by activists from both countries trying to land on the islands were staged almost every year amid protests in front of embassies.[11]


Chinese foreign policy since the 1970s has been one of realist pragmatism. For example, to ensure continued investment and transfer of technology from Japan, the Chinese government’s at time worked to crack down and restrain anti-Japanese protesters. Japanese foreign policy, on the other hand, has been one of realist mercantilism. Its government has been using trade, foreign aid, loans and foreign direct investment in countries in East Asia, especially the ASEAN countries, to achieve its foreign policy objectives.[12] In the 25 years between 1979 and 2005, for example, Japan provided China with a total of 3.4 trillion yen in official development assistance (ODA).[13] This explains why relationship between the two countries grew rapidly especially between 1970s and 1990s when China was eagerly seeking foreign help to develop its economy in the aftermath of its fallouts with Soviet Union and of the tumultuous Cultural Revolution.


By the turn of the century, that dependency of China on Japan was weakened with the success of Chinese opening up and reforms which allowed the Chinese economy to grow rapidly at an annual average of 10 percent from 1978-2012, with higher rates after China joined the World Trade Organisation in 2001. By 2008, China surpassed Japan to become the country with the largest foreign exchange reserves. Then in 2010, China became the second largest economy in the world. China has become less dependent on Japan economically and the latent century-long rivalry again emerged to the forefront. With the US preoccupied with the Middle East and when Japan's political leaders were still mired in seven decades of postwar political conservatism, the Chinese leadership seized the opportunity in recent years to step into the East China Sea.


2010s: US Pivot to Asia and China's Growing Military Might


The US President Obama came into office as avowedly "the first Pacific president." Given that China sees the US as always been concerned primarily with protecting its own global dominance, which inevitably means doing everything it can to disrupt China’s rise, Obama’s “Pivot to Asia” initiative not surprisingly reinforced China’s abiding suspicions about the US. To the Chinese leaders, the true objectives of the pivot were, among other things, to fan fears about Beijing’s intentions among its neighbours and to forge cooperation among countries in Asia to create obstacles to China’s achieving its rightful role as the major power in the region.[14]


It therefore came as no surprise that, soon after the launched of the “Pivot to Asia” (later rebranded as ‘rebalancing’) initiative, the Japanese government also purchased the contentious Daioyu/Senkaku Islands from a private Japanese owner in September 2012, bringing them under state control. To China, Japan’s nationalization of the islands, together with Philippines submission of its territorial claim for arbitration in 2013, was an integral element of the US’ containment strategy, designed to provoke China into taking a more aggressive stance in both the South China Sea and East China Sea, thus undermining its own claim of a peaceful rise. Inexorably, the Japan’s move stoked anger in China and contributed to worsening ties.


Tension was also exacerbated by US response. Former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, for example, supported Japan's nationalisation of the islands while reiterating the Washington security pact with Tokyo. Similar comments of backing Japan were later made by her successor John Kerry and most recently by Jim Mattis after he assumed the post of Defence Secretary in February 2017.[15] Not surprisingly, America's position triggered strong responses from China. In November 2013, China declared an air defense identification zone over the East China Sea in which the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands were included. Since then, China has stepped up patrolling of water near the islands by its coast guard. In 2017, for example, there were 28 such patrols involving progressively more, bigger and better-equipped Chinese coast guard vessels. In response to Chinese actions, Japan has announced plan to upgrade its coast guard force in its defence budget slated for 2018.


Meanwhile, other political developments made things increasingly more difficult for bilateral ties. For example, China observed a National Memorial Day for the first time in 2014 to mark the anniversary of the Nanjing massacre of 1937. The Chinese government also applied to UNESCO to have historical materials on the Nanjing massacre and the “comfort women” added to the World Heritage list. The application made clear China’s intention to puts these historical issues with Japan the focus of its public diplomacy and propaganda campaigns. China’s application was accepted by UNESCO in 2015.[16] Japan too applied in 2014 for a collection of diaries and wills of kamikaze pilots from World War II to be registered with the same UNESCO body but the application was turned down.[17]


In November 2014, Abe and Xi met on the sidelines of the APEC summit in Beijing for the first Japan-China summit in two-and-a-half years since September 2012 when Japanese government purchased three of the Senkaku Islands from their private owner. Xi practically snubbed Abe by coldly shaking his hand and quickly turning away.


Meanwhile, military activities in the East China Sea had surged considerably since 2013 causing deep anxiety for Japan. Statistics show that China’s military exercises in the East China Sea were becoming increasingly routine and that their frequency and scale had grown. In fiscal 2016 ended in March, Japan scrambled fighter jets 1,168 times to intercept approaching aircraft, breaking the Cold War record.[18] In August 2016, a loose armada of some 200 to 300 Chinese fishing boats suddenly appeared near the islands, followed by repeated intrusions into Japanese waters by Chinese government ships.[19]


By 2017, however, China-Japan bilateral ties appear to be on the mend.[20] President Trump has created unease among US allies about the role of the US in the region.


Since Trump’s ascendancy as the US president, not only has TPP has been shelved, the whole Obama “Pivot to Asia” initiative has also been declared officially dead.[21] His “America First” policy platform also left Asian allies uneasy as to the fate of their future relationship with the US. In response to the altered dynamics, Asian countries have begun moving closer to China. For Abe, President Richard Nixon’s sudden rapprochement with China in 1972 while leaving Japan in the dark serves as a grim reminder that the erratic Trump may make some kind of deal with China that could put Japan at a disadvantage.[22] Trump’s unpredictability thus encourages Japan to be more self-reliant in formulating its defense policy while at the same time also augments Abe’s determination to amend the pacific Constitution drafted by the US after its World War II defeat. Moreover, the threat from North Korea is also naturally drawing China and Japan closer.


In his meeting with Xi in Vietnam during a Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit meeting in November 2017, Abe hailed a “fresh start” for the Japan-China relations. Japanese media reports were quick to highlight Xi’s relatively warm facial expression when he greeted Abe this time. After five years of relegating Japan to the diplomatic freezer, Xi has apparently decided that a richer and stronger China had more to gain from smoother relations with Abe than continued hostility.


Business leaders on both sides are doing their part to help improve bilateral ties. A group of Japanese business leaders met up with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in Beijing on November 22, 2017 while Prime Minister Shinzo Abe graced a reception at a two-day gathering of Japanese and Chinese business executives in Tokyo on December 4 where he expressed his intention to cooperate with China on President Xi Jinping's Belt and Road initiative. The Japanese leader also extended an invitation for Mr Xi to visit Japan as early as possible, while expressing his willingness to travel to China first.[23]


In December 2017, after a decade of hard-fought negotiations, Japan and China also reached an agreement on how to implement a maritime and aerial communication mechanism aimed at averting unintended clashes in and above the East China Sea. The mechanism, a sort of hotline between defense officials from the two countries, is expected to be put into practice in the near future though details of the mechanism have yet to be finalized before the agreement is official.


Then on December 13 when China observed the National Memorial Day to mark the 80th anniversary of Nanjing Massacre, commemorations were low key in an apparent gesture to Tokyo. Xi attended the commemoration without giving a speech. The rare move was interpreted to be a signal to Japan of improving ties between the two countries.[24] Instead of simply recalling the past, Yu Zhengsheng, the head of China’s top advisory body who delivered the speech, looked also to the future and suggested a period of better relations between China and Japan.


The defrosting in relations between the two countries paralleled the marked improvements in Japanese and Chinese people’s views on recent relations between their countries. After years of abysmal readings, the 2017 annual survey conducted by Japanese non-profit think tank Genron NPO and the China International Publishing Group showed that 44.9 percent of the Japanese respondents think the current status of bilateral ties is “bad” or “relatively bad”, down sharply from 2016’s 71.9 percent. The figures also declined for Chinese respondents from 78.2 percent in the previous year to 2017’s 64.2 percent though comparatively more Chinese than Japanese respondents hold a negative perception of current ties.


Respondents in both countries also expressed more optimism about the future of bilateral ties. Among the Chinese, only 29.7 percent expect them to worsen, down from 50.4 percent a year before, and 28.7 percent expecting them to improve, up from 19.6 percent. Among the Japanese, it declined to 23.6 percent from 34.3 percent last year and rose to 13.1 percent from 8.8 percent, respectively.[25]


Despite the brighter outlook, nearly 90 percent of the respondents in Japan still said they have an unfavourable impression of China. In contrast, the impression of Japan among the Chinese had recovered considerably, with 66.8 percent having an unfavorable impression and 31.5 percent having a good impression, compared with 76.7 percent and 21.7 percent, respectively, in 2016. The survey also found that while 44.2 percent of the Chinese respondents want to visit Japan while over 70 percent of the Japanese do not want to go to China because of the Communist Party rule, the repeated intrusions of Chinese ships into Japanese territorial waters around the disputed islands, and the constant Chinese criticism of Japan over wartime issues.


Both China and Japan are aware of the political realities. While working to improve relations in terms of trade and diplomacy, each is aware of what the other side is doing to enhance its own national interests. Thus, Japan is likely to keep its guard up vis-a-vis China and will continue to upgrade its military and insist on its sovereignty over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, and enhance ties with like-minded countries. China, too, won’t give ground on its territorial claims and is likely to continue to send ships and planes into areas considered by Japan to be its territorial sea and airspace


China’s surging military activity in the East China Sea is causing deep anxiety for Japan. Statistics show that China’s military exercises in the East China Sea are becoming increasingly routine and that their frequency and scale have grown. In fiscal 2016 ended in March, Japan scrambled fighter jets 1,168 times to intercept approaching aircraft, breaking the Cold War record, according to the Defense Ministry. In first half of fiscal 2017 through September, that figure was 561 times or 33 fewer than 2016’s record-setting figure but still the second-highest total ever for the period.[26]


While the Air Self-Defense Force scrambled fighter jets at a record pace in 2016, incidents involving Chinese aircraft in the first half of 2017 fell to 287, down 120 from the previous year. Despite the fall, the Japanese Defense Ministry documented an uptick in “unusual” flights, including long-range flights by bombers (H-6) accompanied by fighters (SU-30), electronic warfare aircrafts, transportation aircrafts (Y-8) and reconnaissance aircrafts (TU-154) flying in formation through international airspace over the Bashi Channel (巴士海峡) and the Miyako Strait (宫古海峡) into the Pacific Ocean as well as through the Tsushima Strait (对马海峡) from the East China Sea into the Sea of Japan and back. China announced that such missions are part of its continuing push to hone its systemic ability to operate farther from its shores in international airspace and sea lanes, even as far as the second island chain, and should be considered hereon as routine exercises.[27]


In short, there is no doubt that Xi will continue to beef up its military to become a “world-class” force that can resolutely safeguard state sovereignty, security and the national interest to realize the dream of “two 100 years” and rejuvenation of the “great Chinese nation.”[28] Hence, even though the two sides want to improve their relationship while managing their differences better to avoid unintended clashes in the East China Sea, they will be walking into it with their eyes wide open. Looking ahead, there is likely to be greater cordiality in the relationship, but not necessarily greater trust.[29]


That is a real pity because, given a choice, both Xi and Abe would prefer not to go to war at this stage. China worries about the growing threat from the American fleets in the region and seize the opportunity proffered by US’ preoccupation with Middle East to expand and upgrade its military. China growing military might and increasing assertiveness, not to mention also its burgeoning economy, in turn feeds Japan’s fear of Chinese intention and decides to not only draw closer to the US but also amend its constitution to allow it to be more self-reliant militarily. This in turn has caught the attention of China worrying about the remilitarization of Japan. The superpower geopolitical dynamic as well as the long history of strategic rivalry between the two otherwise culturally-affined neighbours fuel a spiral of fears and arms buildup benefiting only the American military-industrial complex while threatening to engulf and destabilize the region.

Today, the danger of the two countries being dragged into war is real and rising with the US deployment of 7th fleet and possibly also the 3rd Fleet in the near future and with the dangerous brinksmanship of both Trump and Kim Jong En over North Korea’s nuclear threat.

Xi, Abe & Trump

The good news is that both Xi and Abe are strong leaders who have succeeded in consolidating their political bases recently. In 2017, Xi won his second five-year term as China’s top leader in October’s Communist Party Congress, with his status elevated to match those of Mao Zedong, the nation’s founding father, and Deng Xiaoping, a reformist leader credited for opening the country to the outside world in the late 1970s. Likewise, Abe won a commanding victory in the general election held in October 2017 by presenting LDP as the party most capable of containing the threat from North Korea. Together with its coalition partner, LDP secured a two-thirds majority in the Lower House. With the victory, Abe is on track to be re-elected for a third term as the LDP president in 2018. The party changed its rules earlier to allow one person to stay in office for three terms instead of two. If that materializes, he can stay as prime minister until 2021.


Hence, should both Xi and Abe so desire, their success in power consolidation also means that there is enough time for both to work out a new peace treaty, one that is not just symbolically friendly but genuinely promote understanding and lasting peace. This is provided the two are able to create a long term, balanced, sustainable relation underpinned by trust and openness that resembles that between Yasuhiro Nakasone and Hu Yaobang in the 1980s. Abe, for example, had said that Japan-China relations cannot genuinely improve without stability in the East China Sea. But Abe should also recognize that until Japan sincerely apologizes for its past aggression and war crimes, much like the Germans did for theirs in WWII, it is unlikely that relations with China and Korea will evolve beyond what it is today. In this regard, the ball is indeed in Japan’s court.


There is no doubt a small minority of ‘historical revisionists’ exist in Japan seeking to justify past Japanese aggression in China. Some Japanese academics, however, are quick to point out that, rather than being a revisionist,  Abe is more a conservative who supports the postwar international order vigorously but is concerned about China’s brandishing its growing military might in an apparent bid to ‘alter the international status quo’. To them, Abe sees the emergence of a strong China as a threat rather than an opportunity to rearming and remilitarizing Japan. Abe’s effort to amend the Constitution drafted while Japan was under the US-led occupation after after the WWII is therefore not an attempt to revive Japanese militarism. Rather, it is an attempt to relax the legal constraints that have limited Japan’s ability to defend itself and to contribute proactively to regional stability.[1]


One wildcard in how the China-Japan bilateral ties will evolve hereon is the role played by the US or, more specifically, by US President Donald Trump. As an astute businessman, Trump’s primary objective seems to be creating enough troubles in Middle East and Asia Pacific so as to boost exports of US-made weapons and to bring down US trade deficits. During their meeting in Tokyo, Abe and Trump agreed that Japan purchase billions of dollars worth of military weapons from the U.S. to counter the ever increasing threat from North Korea. For Trump, it was a step toward rectifying the US’ large bilateral trade imbalance that is in Japan’s favour and from a longer-term viewpoint, one that could lead to lessen its military burden to defend Japan from both North Korea and China.


Despite their seemingly common objective to contain China’s rise, however, the relation between the two is hardly on a solid footing. What is unsettling particularly for Abe is Trump’s meeting with China which generated fear about reliability of the U.S. president. It reminded Tokyo of the “Nixon Shock” in 1972, in which then U.S. President Richard Nixon normalized Washington-Beijing relations while leaving Tokyo in the dark. Trump’s unpredictability would encourage Japan to be more self-reliant in formulating its defense policy, including amending the Constitution drafted while Japan was under the U.S.-led occupation after its World War II defeat.

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[1] See June Teufel Dreyer. (2016).

[2] See Yanzhong Huang. (2015). “China, Japan, and the 21 Demands.” The Diplomat. January 24, 2015.

[3] See June Teufel Dreyer. (2016).

[4] See Inoue Masaya. (2016).

[5] See Inoue Masaya. (2016).

[6] See China Daily. (2013).“Major issues in China-Japan relations over the past 40 years.” October 15, 2013.

[7] Kawashima, Shin; Nishino, Junya; Watanabe, Tsuneo & Hosoya, Yuichi. (2015). “Is Historical Reconciliation Possible? A Seventieth Anniversary Assessment (2).” The Tokyo Foundation. November 30, 2015.

[8] See Dolan, Ronald and Worden, Robert (Eds). (1994). “Japan: A Country Study.” Washington: GPO for the Library of Congress

[9] See James J. Przystup. (2004). “Not The Best Of Times.” Comparative Connections,Volume 6, Issue 3. October 2004.

[10] Min Gyo Koo (2009). “The Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute and Sino-Japanese political-economic relations: cold politics and hot economics?” The Pacific Review, 22:2. Pg.227  

[11] Robert W Smith and Bradford Thomas. (1998). “Island Disputes and the Law of the Sea: An Examination of Sovereignty and Delimitation of Disputes.” Maritime Briefing, Volume 2(4). Pg.2

[12] See June Teufel Dreyer. (2016). “Middle Kingdom and Empire of the Rising Sun: Sino-Japanese Relations, Past and Present.” Oxford University Press.

[13][13] See Inoue Masaya. (2016). “The Impact of LDP Politics on Japan-China Relations.” The Tokyo Foundation. January 12, 2016.

[14] See Kenneth Lieberthal. (2011). “The American Pivot to Asia.” Foreign Policy. December 21, 2011.

[15] See Ankit Panda (2017. “Mattis: Senkakus Covered Under US-Japan Security Treaty.” The Diplomat. February 6, 2017.

[16] See Bochen Han. (2015). “UNESCO Accepts China's Nanjing Massacre Documents.” The Diplomat. October 17, 2015.

[17] See Julian Ryall. (2015). “UN heritage body refuses request to preserve letters of kamikaze pilots.” SCMP. June 14, 2017.

[18] See Jesse Johnson. (2017). “Japan scrambles fighter jets less in first half, but sees uptick in ‘unusual’ flights by China.” Japan Times. October 14, 2017.

[19] See JiJi. (2017). “Japan fathoms meaning of China’s Senkaku forays five years after nationalization.” Japan Times. September 10, 2017.

[20] See Charlotte Gao. (2017). “China-Japan Relations Move Toward a 'New Start'.” The Diplomat. November 15, 2017.

[21] See Aaron Mehta. (2017). “'Pivot to the Pacific' is over, senior U.S. diplomat says.” Defense News. March 14, 2017.

[22] See Motoko Rich & Jane Perlez. (2017). “Seeing U.S. in Retreat Under Trump, Japan and China Move to Mend Ties.” NY Times. November 16, 2017.

[23] See Straits Times. (2017). “Japan ready to cooperate with China on Silk Road project: Abe.” December 5, 2017.

[24] Liu Zhen. (2017). “80 years on, China tempers Nanking massacre anniversary in nod to Japan.” SCMP. December 13, 2017.

[25] See Japan Times. (2017). “Japanese and Chinese views on recent ties have greatly improved, poll shows.” December 14, 2017.

[26] See Jesse Johnson. (2017). “Japan scrambles fighter jets less in first half, but sees uptick in ‘unusual’ flights by China.” Japan Times. October 14, 2017.

[27] See Japan Times. (2017). “Tokyo and Beijing agree to implement hotline aimed at averting clashes over Senkakus.” December 6, 2017.

[28] See Japan Times. (2017). “Xi behind coercive tactics in East China Sea: documents.” December 2, 2017.

[29] See Frank Ching. (2017). “Japan-China ties: Will there be more trust or just cordiality?” Japan Times. December 18, 2017.

[30] Source: Is Historical Reconciliation Possible?(2))

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