Sino-Japanese Relations

Time to Bury the Hatchet

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A Japanese flotilla
Sino-Japanese Relations : Time to Bury the Hatchet - Richard Upchurch

By now it is no surprise when a story pops up in the news that China and Japan have engaged in yet another confrontation over a particular set of islands in the East China Sea. A source of contention due to their strategic importance as well as their oil and gas reserves, the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands generated fresh sparks between the two Asian giants in 2012 after the Japanese government purchased them from a private citizen. Ask China, and the islands were originally under Chinese jurisdiction. Ask Japan, and the Chinese claim is illegitimate and ill-founded. Over the following two years, provocations by both sides – including China’s establishment of an Air Defense Identification Zone in 2013 – have escalated tensions, creating a sense of urgency. In light of the countries’ historical animosity toward one another, these developments have led some to prophesize about a third world war. While the risk of military conflict between China and Japan is real and should not be discounted as an impossible, alarmist fantasy, it is by no means inevitable. In order to avoid escalation to the point of devastation, however, it is incumbent upon both nations to restrain their nationalistic tendencies, reconcile historical discrepancies, and enter into negotiations as responsible stewards of economic prosperity in East Asia.

In order to understand the vitriolic and combustible nature of the island disputes, it is important to be familiar with the historical baggage that China and Japan carry together in their relationship. The origins of the two country’s mutual enmity can be traced to the Sino-Japanese War of 1895, in which Japan defeated China and seized Taiwan via the Treaty of Shimonoseki. Included in its acquisition of Taiwan were the surrounding islands, which happen to be those in question today. Flash forward to 1931 when Japan invaded Manchuria, an area in Northeast China. There, they installed a puppet government and harassed the Chinese for 6 years, until they invaded China proper in 1937. Then came the indelible blotch on Sino-Japanese history: the Rape of Nanjing, a period of intense bloodlust in which the Japanese committed unspeakable atrocities against thousands of Chinese in the city of Nanjing. The specter of this event haunts the Sino-Japanese relationship to this day. It is true that the Japanese government has attempted to apologize for the event, but unsatisfactory wording and continued visits by Japanese leaders to Yasukuni Shrine, where a number of war criminals are enshrined, have led the Chinese to shrug off those efforts as insincere.

Today, Chinese leaders allow historical memories such as the Rape of Nanjing to fuel nationalistic sentiment during heated rows over issues such as the Diaoyu/Senkaku island dispute. Not only that, but its ability now to reassert itself as a world power after suffering humiliation at the hands of Western nations like Britain in the 19th and 20th centuries feeds into a narrative of poetic justice that the Chinese Communist Party is not afraid to exploit in order to garner public support for its ventures in territorial contestation. Japanese leaders are also keen to stoke feelings of nationalism by warning of the danger of a rising China, its historical adversary, in the context of Japan’s constitutional prohibition on maintaining an offensive army. All of this unnecessarily increases the chances for political misunderstanding and military miscalculation. In the event that such an error occurs, international alliances, such as the defense pact between the United States and Japan, could theoretically come into play and escalate the situation on a much larger scale.

What the world needs China and Japan to do is to engage in responsible, measured negotiation instead of playing an increasingly risky game of chicken. As two of the largest economies in the world, connected through symbiotic trade, both countries benefit far more as partners in a new global paradigm than as rivals from an old one. Their leaders surely understand this. Nonetheless, old hatred runs deep. If the future is to be a peaceful one, Chinese and Japanese leaders must work to tame the historical antagonism that plagues their country’s relationship, not co-opt it for their own pursuits.