Publication: China Brief Volume: 5 Issue: 3

According to recent Western reports out of China and views expressed by the Japanese press and many analysts, Beijing is either actively encouraging or tacitly tolerating a growing anti-Japanese sentiment in China. Thus Beijing is portrayed as largely, if not entirely, responsible for the deteriorating state of the Sino-Japanese political relationship. Some even attribute the rising negative attitude of the Japanese toward China as a consequence of the Chinese behavior.

However, a closer look at China’s Japan policy in the past few years reveals quite a different picture. The new leadership under President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao has tried to create a constructive environment for Sino-Japanese relations: giving space to dissident voices in China’s foreign policy community to advocate openly in favor of forging a warmer relationship with Japan, while conceding that their pursuit of a potential new policy for breaking the political ice with Japan has failed.

“Economically Warm, Politically Cold” Not Always the Case

It is known that Sino-Japanese relations have suffered from the so-called “economically warm but politically cold” syndrome in recent years, but this has not always been the case. When China began its economic reform policies in the late 1970s, its trade with Japan was insignificant and other exchanges between the two societies were limited. Yet close to 80 percent of Japanese expressed friendly feelings toward Chinese, on par with the United States, while the Chinese held up Japan as a model of modernization that could also offer advanced technology, capital and management know-how.

After decades of increased interactions in every aspect of the bilateral relationship, economic interdependence is deepening rapidly. Japan has been China’s top trading partner for the greater part of the last 20 years (in 2004, Japan ranked behind the EU and the U.S., becoming China’s 3rd largest trading partner). China’s trade volume with Japan has grown rapidly, and is now similar to Japan’s trade volume with the United States (not quite surpassing the U.S. yet). But the same “friendly feelings” indicator, conducted annually by the Japanese Prime Minister’s Office, now shows close to 60 percent of Japanese do not feel friendly toward China. Numerous opinion polls in China also indicate most Chinese do not have a positive image of Japan. This defies the conventional liberal belief that economic, social and cultural interdependence will lead to better understanding between societies.

Worse still, both Beijing and Tokyo tend to point the finger at the each other for this growing political friction. Deng Xiaoping once put it bluntly: none of the bilateral problems were caused by China, and Japan should be blamed for all the troubles in Sino-Japanese relations. Facing such a political deadlock, the China-Japan 21st Century Friendship Commission and other working-level consultations are severely constrained.

Chinese and Japanese Leaders Moving in Different Directions

However, leadership transitions in countries have often become opportunities to adjust policies toward each other. Junichiro Koizumi became Japan’s prime minister in 2001 while Hu and Wen were emerging as the core members of the “fourth generation” leadership. Koizumi made it clear that, despite the strong protest from China and other Asian countries, he would visit Yasukuni Shrine where Japan’s militaristic past is glorified and the war dead hosted, including convicted war criminals from World War II. Meanwhile, the Hu-Wen team was thinking through some of the very basic premises of China’s Japan policy. Internal reviews were conducted, and different opinions were allowed to circulate. Ma Licheng, a senior official People’s Daily commentator who had written on China’s reform process, published an article in an influential journal, Strategy and Management, in December 2002 right after the 16th CCP Congress that marked China’s leadership transition. Ma criticized what he saw as the ultra-nationalist attitude of many Chinese toward Japan, and called for “new thinking” (xin siwei) in China’s Japan policy.

What followed was unprecedented. Though Chinese society is becoming more open by the day, the press remains largely controlled by the government, and foreign policy is a traditionally taboo subject. But for a limited period of time, academics, journalists, policy-oriented researchers and concerned citizens were able to engage in a lively debate on whether there should be a new direction in Beijing’s Japan policy, and on Chinese foreign relations in general.

The “New Thinking” Hotly Debated

The starting point for advocates of a “revolution in diplomacy” toward Japan is deep reflection on how Beijing’s foreign policy makers and the Chinese public have dealt with Japan and bold steps in implementing fresh initiatives. First, they argue that China should stop putting so much weight on “historical issues”, and drop its insistence that Japan come clean with an apology for its aggressive wars against China. At the same time, Japanese politicians should stop provocations such as white-washing past war crimes or visiting the Yasukuni. They point out that Japanese leaders have apologized in various forms. Japan is after all a much-reformed society – pacifism, not the right-wing, is the mainstream today. The “burden of history” has consumed too much positive energy, they argue, proposing instead a “let-go-of-the-past” approach and a focus on a future-oriented partnership.

Critics contend that it is impossible to build a solid foundation for a long-term relationship if major Japanese political forces still refuse to unambiguously atone for the country’s war responsibilities 60 years after the war ended. A nation that fails to acknowledge its darkest chapter is a nation that cannot be trusted. A French-German reconciliation model can work for China and Japan only if the Japanese deal with their past as thoroughly in their soul-searching as the Germans did. And they warn that history, if forgotten, is doomed to repeat itself.

Second, the “new thinking” proponents challenge the Chinese public to examine its own ultra-nationalistic bias against Japan. They point out that extreme views, such as degrading anti-Japanese language used in internet chat groups, are unhealthy and if unchecked, may become the start of fascism in the name of patriotism. Events such as the soccer riots in several Chinese cities against the Japanese team during the Asia Cup last year, or projections of an inevitable war with Japan, are causing damage to China as an emerging great power. But opponents see these charges as an exaggeration of isolated phenomena that are unrepresentative of Chinese nationalism today. In fact, they emphasize the opposite is the case: China is lacking a good dose of nationalism as a rising power. In contrast to the relentlessness of Americans in punishing their enemies after the 9/11 attacks and the persistence of the Jewish community’s worldwide hunt of Nazi war criminals, China is too accommodating in its foreign relations for the sake of maintaining its “peaceful development” image.

Third, the new thinking promoters insist that their preference of accommodation over confrontation with Japan is purely based on enhancing China’s own national interests. Hostility, they caution, will cost China’s modernization program dearly, given the size of the Sino-Japanese bilateral trade. Poor relations may also push Japan further to the U.S. side on the larger regional and global balance of power where the Sino-American competition is the ultimate game of the 21st century. The best strategy is to treat Japan as a “normal state”, to tolerate its growing military strength, to support its expanding international profile, and to eventually pull Tokyo closer to Beijing and away from Washington.

The rival camp dismisses such opinions as wishful thinking at best. Citing classical Chinese as well as Western realist doctrines, many dispute the idea of basing China’s national interests only on economic indicators. Prestige, respect and dignity are all indispensable parts of national power. Although not always a zero-sum formation, there must be a give and take in international politics. Thus, critics conclude that China will be at the losing end by unilaterally giving too much without seeking a compatible return.

Tokyo Failing to Respond to Beijing’s Olive Branches

While not openly endorsing the new thinking, the new Chinese leadership quietly experimented with some of its ideas in its Japan policy. Unlike their predecessors, both Hu and Wen refrained from publicly criticizing Koizumi’s repeated homage to Yasukuni. Up to the spring of 2004, Beijing had hoped to change Koizumi’s mind through both formal and informal channels so the interrupted mutual visits at the top level could resume. The PRC also tried to limit the scope of a growing resentment among ordinary Chinese toward Japan on issues ranging from Yasukuni and civilian compensation of war victims to Tokyo’s failure in cleaning up between 700,000 (Japanese estimate) and two million (Chinese estimate) chemical weapons left behind by the Japanese army at the end of World War II that continue to cause casualties today.

In Japan, however, the press in general (and conservatives in particular) have celebrated the new thinking from China as a vindication of the Japanese stance in the bilateral disputes, claiming it is up to China to right its own wrongs. Rather than responding to Beijing’s conciliatory gestures, Koizumi wants to persist with the Yasukuni pilgrimage. And those who call for closer ties with China have been under attack. Japanese Foreign Ministry officials in charge of Japan’s China policy, labeled as the “pro-China school”, were targeted by a vicious smear campaign. First circulated in right-wing opinion magazines but now acquiring semi-official acceptance, China is regarded as a threat comparable to that of North Korea.

The turning point came on January 1st of last year, when Koizumi made his annual visit to worship at Yasukuni, the fourth year in a row. The first signal of the Chinese leadership dropping its moderate approach came in March 2004 during the National People’s Congress. In his press conference, Premier Wen explicitly referred to “Japanese leaders’ repeated Yasukuni visits” as the key issue preventing mutual leadership visits in the past three years. In their sidelines meeting at APEC last November, President Hu confronted Koizumi directly about the Yasukuni visits. And shortly after, at the 10th summit of ASEAN and East Asian leaders, Wen warned the Japanese prime minister again that the Yasukuni issue will affect bilateral relationship directly.

Ironically, it might be the hardening of the Chinese position that prompted Koizumi not to give an affirmative answer for the first time on whether he would go to Yasukuni again this year. Yet, his Liberal Democratic Party is making a fresh push for its members to go to the shrine in the party’s platform. As a Chinese sympathizer of the new thinking observed, had the Japanese leadership responded to Beijing’s olive branches positively early on, the moderate voices in both countries would have been strengthened. The rise and decline of China’s new thinking on Japan is a valuable reminder for all to pay greater attention to the complexities of this bilateral relationship and not to jump to simple conclusions.

Wenran Jiang is associate professor of political science at the University of Alberta.