The View from Tokyo: Melting Ice and Building Bridges

Publication: China Brief Volume: 7 Issue: 9

Relations between China and Japan have not always been cordial during the 35 years of normalized relations between the two countries. Tokyo followed Washington’s lead and established diplomatic relations with China in 1972, although it continued to view Beijing apprehensively throughout much of the Cold War. Even with the adoption of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship in 1978, the Sino-Japanese relationship remained limited primarily to the realm of trade. While bilateral ties would eventually warm in later years, during the recent administration of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, Tokyo’s relations with China sank to historic depths. Koizumi’s insistence upon continuing his annual visits to the Yasukuni Shrine as well as the anti-Japanese demonstrations in major Chinese cities resulted in relations between the two countries that were “economically warm” but “politically freezing.” When it became clear that Koizumi would be finishing his term late last year, however, Chinese and Japanese leaders began signaling to one another that the transition in leadership offered an opportunity for both countries to repair the damaged relationship.

Both Chinese and Japanese officials agreed that given the mutual economic interests of both countries, any further deterioration of political relations would also have severe economic repercussions. Already, the anti-Japanese demonstrations had resulted in the destruction of Japanese storefronts and property and were having an adverse effect upon Japanese businesses interested in entering into the Chinese market. Thus, when Shinzo Abe was elected in September, it was decided that his first trip abroad as prime minister would be to China in order to “break the ice” between the two countries. This successful initiative was reciprocated by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s official visit to Japan on April 11-13—the first by a Chinese premier in over six and a half years—to further “melt the ice.”

The Governing Frameworks

The China-Japan Joint Press Statement of October 8, 2006, which was agreed upon by the leaders of the two governments during Abe’s visit to Beijing, now provides the fundamental framework for the bilateral relationship. In the statement, both leaders indicated a strong commitment to improving the Japan-China relationship by building “a mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests” [1]. This strategic agreement has now become the guideline for policymakers in both countries as political considerations have become coupled with economic concerns to serve as “the two wheels” of the relationship. The statement also affirmed that mutual respect for each other’s governance remained an important foundation in building future-oriented relations. Japan “positively appreciated” China’s peaceful development, while China recognized that Japan’s post-war policies have followed the path of a peaceful country for more than six decades. This was the first official document in which the Chinese leadership made a reference to “post-war Japan,” a clear indication of Beijing’s support for Abe, the first Japanese prime minister to be born after World War II.

Wen’s visit to Japan additionally strengthened the relationship through further agreements to cooperate on a wide range of issues, as noted in the Japan-China Joint Press Statement on April 11 [2]. Particularly notable was the joint statement that pledged to enhance cooperation in dealing with China’s environmental challenges. Both leaders agreed that combating global warming was of vital importance and agreed to jointly tackle China’s water pollution problems and assist China in adopting a recycling-based economy with a pollution control management system. As part of this cooperation, Japan would transfer environmentally friendly technology to China as well as offer direct investments in this field. It is likely that Tokyo will also offer Beijing assistance in the form of official development aid (ODA) in the near future.

Underlying Trends and Challenges

Reflecting the ever-increasing economic relationship between the two countries, recent statistics published by the Japanese government revealed that China has become Japan’s largest trading partner, surpassing the United States (China Daily, April 25). In 2006, overall trade between the two countries amounted to $211.3 billion and Japan’s foreign direct investments (FDI) in China reached $4.6 billion, bringing the total FDI since the normalization of relations to $58 billion (China Daily, April 11). Complementing the advances in the economic dimension of the relationship has been the growing number of visitors to each country. The total number of Chinese and Japanese visitors reached 4.7 million last year, and there are now 671 flights between Japan and China each week. In 2005, some 110,000 Chinese students studied in Japan, while 20,000 Japanese students studied in China [3].

In spite of these encouraging developments, a number of challenges in Sino-Japanese relations remain to be overcome, most notable of which are the Chinese and Japanese publics’ attitudes toward one another. According to a joint survey conducted in 2005 by the Asahi Shimbun and the Institute of Sociology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), only 9.9 percent of the Japanese public held favorable views of China, 27.6 held unfavorable views and 59.8 percent remained undecided [4]. These sentiments were reflected even more starkly by the Chinese public. In a separate survey conducted by both Asahi and CASS in 2005, only 7.8 percent of the Chinese public held favorable views of Japan, while 64.1 percent held unfavorable views of Japan [5].

Given that much of this animosity stems from Chinese complaints over “historical issues,” both leaders pledged last October to “face past history squarely” and support joint historical research projects by Japanese and Chinese scholars; since then, these scholars have met with each other on two separate occasions. Mutual public (mis)perceptions of one another also contribute to these unfavorable attitudes. Exchange programs at all levels of society will assist in ameliorating the public sentiments of each country. For example, the “Japan-China Exchange Year of Culture and Sports 2007” that was launched late last year will “introduce an image of a new Japan and the Japanese to the Chinese people of the new generation” [6]. By targeting the younger generation in these exchanges, Chinese and Japanese leaders will be able to deepen their public’s mutual understandings of one another for generations to come.

The Japanese public, on the other hand, is increasingly concerned with China’s activities that affect regional stability and security and are closely observing the actions that Beijing is undertaking to defuse the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula. The Japanese are equally worried about China’s growing military capacity, and Tokyo has called for the Chinese military to display increased transparency in its policies. Added transparency and the constant exchange of military and defense officials would certainly help avoid any misunderstandings or accidental military confrontations, especially given the ongoing territorial disputes between the two countries over the East China Sea.

The successful visits by the respective prime ministers have helped to set the tone of the relationship between the two countries. In order to ensure continued improvement of relations, however, it is necessary that Tokyo and Beijing conduct themselves according to the established frameworks that were agreed upon through painstaking “strategic dialogues.” Additional visits at both the ministerial and summit level, such as Abe’s visit to China later this year as well as Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to Japan next year, are likewise necessary for the expansion of the bilateral relationship. While the two joint statements have demonstrated that Japan and China are capable of finding common ground with one another, political resolve and prowess will be needed in order to sustain the spirit of cooperation.


1. Full text of the China-Japan Joint Press Statement of October 8, 2006 is available online at:

2. Full text of Japan-China Joint Press Statement on April 11, 2007 available online at:

3. Official Pamphlet prepared jointly by Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan and the Committee of Japan-China Exchange Year for Culture and Sports, available online at:

4. Polling questions and data from the joint Asahi Shimbun-CASS survey available online at:

5. Polling questions and data from the joint Asahi Shimbun-CASS survey available online at:

6. Full text of the Decision on the Chairman of the Executive Committee, etc. of “The Japan-China Exchange Year of Culture and Sports 2007” is available online at: