One Mountain, Two Tigers

The Long History of Sino-Japanese Tensions

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Kabuki theater poster: battles of Coxinga
One Mountain, Two Tigers : The Long History of Sino-Japanese Tensions - Tiffany Ruosi Wang

The beginning of February marked the start of the Chinese Lunar New Year, a holiday traditionally associated with feelings of hope and joy. However, this year the escalating territorial disputes between China and Japan over islands in the East China Sea cast a pall over the festivities. Due to mounting tensions, even the fireworks used in New Year’s took on anti-Japanese undertones. Roadside stands in Beijing sold fireworks labeled “I Love Diaoyu Island” or “Tokyo Big Explosions”. These provocatively named explosives attracted patriotic consumers and ran out of stock very quickly. The government later ordered such fireworks to be withdrawn from the market to prevent a further intensification of the conflict, but anti-Japanese sentiment in China has been long-simmering. These historical tensions will play an important role in shaping future relations between the two nations.

Conflicts between China and Japan can be traced back to 57 AD when the Emperor of the Han Dynasty in China gave Japan a “golden seal” that until 1868 marked it under Chinese law as a subsidiary nation affiliated with the Chinese Empire. During the Sui Dynasty and Tang Dynasty, Japan established a number of embassies in China and sent many students to China to study its culture and political system. China strongly influenced Japan with its writing system, customs, culture and philosophy through trade and cultural exchange programs. Except for occasional military friction, China managed to maintain a peaceful relationship with Japan before the latter’s rapid industrial development.

In 1868, Japan began its Meiji Restoration, opening up a new era of modernization and rapid industrialization, while during the same period China experienced the decline and eventual collapse of its feudal civilization, punctuated by defeat against Western forces in the Opium Wars and Anglo-French Expeditions. With a waning Chinese Empire and a rising Japan, regional dominance in East Asia shifted. These changes in the balance of power played a critical role in redefining the Sino-Japan relations after the late 19th century.

After 1871, a modernized Japan started a policy of territorial expansion and acquisition in Asia. Frictions between China and Japan arose from Japan’s taking over Ryuku Island in 1870, and the Qing Dynasty later ceded Taiwan after a humiliating defeat in the first Sino-Japanese war in 1894. Chinese territory in Manchuria was saved only by Russian and French intervention, but the Chinese government was still forced to pay a huge indemnity. Japan utilized its profit in further pursuit of militarization, asserting its position as a global power during the first and second World Wars.

Japanese imperialism in China before and during WWII intensified the historical frictions.  To a large extent, this period sparked the anti-Japanese sentiment still found in China and many other Asian countries. After the World War II, China joined other Asian countries in condemning Japan’s denial of war crimes, especially the Nanking Massacre. Taiwan and Diaoyu Island also became issues of sensitive bilateral dispute, and the US-Japan alliance further complicated the issue in the region.

Today’s burgeoning Sino-Japanese territorial dispute is a manifestation of ongoing power shifts. As China tries to regain its regional dominance and Japan loses its relative advantage. As an old Chinese proverb goes, “one mountain cannot have two tigers.” Neighboring powers tend to compete with each other for supremacy. Both countries have restrained their ambitions thus far, but politicians on both sides of the East China Sea have incentives to stoke nationalism in order to overcome domestic economic and political tensions.

Both China and Japan recently completed changes in national leadership, therefore 2013 becomes a crucial year for the new administrations. Can the region accommodate more than one “tiger”?

Tiffany Ruosi Wang is a first year MA candidate at Johns Hopkins SAIS.