Why Have Japan-China and Japan-ROK Relations Gone Sour? | CHINA US Focus

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Why Have Japan-China and Japan-ROK Relations Gone Sour?

Liu Jiangyong, VP of Research Institute of Contemporary Int'l Relations, Qinghua University
September 11, 2013
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September 3rd of this year marked the 68th anniversary of the signing of the Japanese Instrument of Surrender. Regrettably, 68 years later, the Japanese administration under Shinzo Abe has gone further and further away from the post-World War II international order, which has inevitably led to greater estrangement between Japan and its neighbouring countries. 

Liu Jiangyong

Liu Jiangyong

Several years ago, Mr. Shinzo Abe told the US Vice President that it was to keep the rule of China by the Communist Party of China (CPC) that China criticized Japan on historical issues. Clearly, taking advantage of the US anti-Communist position and Cold War mentality, Abe intended to divert critical voices in the United States against the whitewashing of the Japanese warmongering activities by right-wing forces in Japan. Today, some people in Japan are still spreading the word that the Chinese side has taken a strong position on the issue because it wants to consolidate the CPC rule in China. These recent unwarranted remarks made by Japanese leaders have shaken the very foundation for summit meetings between Japanese leader and leaders of China and the Republic of Korea. Subsequently, some of the media in Japan have claimed that Chinese and Korean leaders may use historical issues to divert their people’s attention from their domestic issues such as the gap between the rich and the poor. 

But these claims simply cannot explain why when Tomiichi Murayama, Yasuo Fukuda and Yukio Hatoyama were Japan’s Prime Minister, China, Japan and the Republic of Korea could cooperate with one another and make satisfactory progress in their cooperation, without letting their bilateral relations fall foul because of historical issues or territorial disputes. 

It is the Japanese mindset that if anything goes wrong in Japan’s relations with its neighbours, its neighbours are to be blamed for it. How has this mindset come about? First, it may be attributed to the changing social structure and political trends in Japan. The recent three generations of Japanese have been born after World War II. They have no guilty conscience that their predecessors had and have not learned or have learned very little of the Japanese invasion history. They naturally have a strong aversion to criticism by neighboring countries. Given the shift in the balance of power between China and Japan, some Japanese tend to blame China for their plight in economic depression and for depriving them of job opportunities. They would rather believe in allegations made by the right-wing forces in Japan while right-wing forces have taken advantage of their belief and seized power. These right-wing forces, once in power, have gone further away in whitewashing the invasion history in an attempt to break or even reverse Japan’s self-restriction and the constrains imposed by the international community at the end of the Second World War, and to restore or even strengthen the pre-War militarist conception of history. All this has explained why the right-wing political forces have gained some ground and pro-rightist tendency has made its way in Japan. Some of the Japanese China-hands who are close to the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan start to go with the stream. No wonder, Japan’s relations with its neighbours have worsened. 

Think-tank members of Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have remained in the Cold War or Militaristic period. They know nothing about the post-War order, Tokyo Trial or Potsdam Declaration and have paid no attention to them. For a long period of time, the right-wing forces in Japan have made many remarks, produced theories and arguments, and invented educational concepts and practice to whitewash the Japanese invasion by citing international law. But when they were not in power, their remarks, statements or arguments failed to draw any attention. Now they are in power and what appear to be their “indiscreet” remarks are actually what they used to utter before. For instance, Shinzo Abe claimed that invasion had no definition. This actually reflects what he had learned and what legal influence he was under when he was young. Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso relished over the revision of the Weimar Constitution and only withdrew his remarks to this effect after he was denounced for them. Yet his cognizance system has remained unchanged. These ideas have been ingrained in the mind of the right-wing people in Japan. In absence of a thorough legal analysis, a relevant and targeted refute or comprehensive and persistent supervision and warning by the international community, it would be preaching to deaf ears if we only call on the Japanese side to put history in its proper perspective at high-level meetings or negotiations. China is ready to solve the territorial disputes with Japan over the Diaoyu Islands through dialogue and negotiations. However, the Japanese side has even refused the dialogue agenda. How can there be effective dialogue then? 

On September 5, President Xi Jinping met briefly with Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the sidelines of the 8th G20 Summit in St. Petersburg of Russia. President Xi reiterated that China was ready to advance the mutually beneficial strategic relations with Japan on the basis of the four political documents between the two countries. Xi stressed that Japan should properly handle such sensitive issues as the Diaoyu Islands and history in the spirit of facing history squarely and looking forward to the future so as to seek ways to properly handle and manage differences and solve problems. Now the ball is in Japan’s court. It should be noted that Prime Minister Abe himself cannot decide on how to improve relations with China. He is bound to be attacked by the right-wing forces in Japan if he decides to improve relations with China and ROK. Even the United States has been willfully slandered and attacked in Japan’s right-wing media. This rightist trend in Japan, if allowed to develop unchecked, is likely to push Japan into dangerous abyss or make Japan a source of political trouble in Asia in the 21st century. 

Today, on the occasion of the 68th anniversary of the signing of the Japanese Instrument of Surrender, it must be unequivocally pointed out that to face history squarely, Japan must genuinely conduct a soul-searching exercise and self-examination of its external expansion, invasion and colonial rule between Meiji Restoration and 1945, must follow the post-War international order charted in the Potsdam Declaration and must take the road to peaceful development. The territorial disputes between Japan and China and between Japan and ROK, in the final analysis, are historical issues, as these disputes have originated from the annexation of the Ryukyu Islands by the Japanese Empire after Meiji Restoration and its subsequent military expansion into China’s Taiwan and the Korean Peninsula. It is clear to all those who know the history of the Diaoyu Islands that Japan’s military buildup in Diaoyu Islands is just to protect the trophy that it obtained during the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895 launched by the Japanese Empire, not to maintain its “inherent territory”. This is absolutely impermissible. 

In July of this year, a 90-year-old overseas Chinese residing in Myanmar wrote to me. He stated the following in his letter: Japan, which has long dreamed of becoming a permanent member of the UN Security Council, has recently got oral assurance of support from France and UK and has now been vigorously soliciting support from 53 African countries by promising investment, economic assistance, training and other benefits to bring the latter onto its wagon and under its control. At the same time, Japan has grouped some countries around China and stirred up trouble. In history, Japan long plundered other countries and cherished ambitions for expansion. Now, it has spoken bitingly, taken pre-emptive actions and played the trick of a thief crying, “Stop thief”. Without mentioning a word of the Cairo Declaration and Potsdam Declaration, Japan has only referred to San Francisco Peace Treaty, a treaty that has no binding force on China. How dare Japan, once a vanquished nation, look down upon and show contempt for ROK?! 

Having read his letter, I cannot but think that this elderly overseas Chinese, a stranger to the author, has seen through Japan, hit the nail on the head and articulated the root cause why Japan has fallen foul with China and ROK respectively. 

Recently, a Japanese government official has publically supported and encouraged the Philippines to challenge China in the South China Sea on the one hand and incited international public opinions to blame China for offending its neighbouring countries on the other. But all this can only fool those who have no knowledge of the facts. Both Japan and the Philippines will in the end only get themselves isolated in the world. The recent China-ASEAN Expo was a great success, but the Philippines was not represented there. China has also seen strong business ties with the Republic of Korea, the United States and Germany while Japan has seen a smaller share of the Chinese market and a weakened position in the global industrial chain. “Abenomics” can only serve as a pain killer for Japan or to quench a thirst with poison, and its negative side effects will come up sooner or later. 

The direction in which Japan is heading is another important reason for the worsening of its relations with China and ROK. The biggest security issue facing the Japanese government and calling for its all-out efforts to address is indeed the Fukushima nuclear accident, which has brought a long-term and wide-spread nuclear contamination to the marine food chain in the Pacific Ocean and globally. In fact, hundreds of tons of high-density nuclear wastewater have been pouring into the Pacific Ocean every day since 11 March 2011. The contaminated nuclear water is producing immeasurable, and worse still, irreversible impact on the marine food chain for marine products in the East Pacific Ocean facing Canada, the United States and Mexico. It will negatively impact Pan-Pacific countries, including the Philippines, Indonesia, Australia and New Zealand in the coming decades as well. The scale of its impact may call for scientific research and studies, though. 

But look at what the Japanese government is doing! It has tried to gloss over the grave impact of the nuclear contamination in order to win its bidding for the 2020 Summer Olympics on the one hand, and has proposed to raise the national sales tax, developed offensive weapons and built up military strength to confront China and ROK on the other. It has attempted to move toward collective self-defence with allies and encouraged the United States to launch a war so that Japan may get onto the US war wagon and use its military forces abroad. Furthermore, it has repeatedly urged the United States to give military commitment to the protection of Japan over the Diaoyu Island issue in an attempt to see China-US confrontation. All these have been done in disregard of the national conditions in Japan and the prevailing trend in the world. Next year marks the 120th anniversary of the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895 (launched by Japanese imperialism to annex Korea and invade China). We cannot but see similarities between the right-wing forces in Japan today and Ito Hirobumi, Field Marshal Yamagata and other Japanese warlords 120 years ago. It is most pronounced over the Diaoyu Islands issue. It is only natural for them to meet with vigilance and opposition from its neighbouring countries.        

The G20 Summit should have given more attention to the global ecological and environmental crisis, especially the endless war-related carbon emissions and their negative impact on the climate change. It is no exaggeration to say that these issues are far more serious and grave than the chemical weapons in Syria. Should heads of state or government of all countries have a thorough understanding of these issues, they would have reached agreement on whether to take military action against Syria over the alleged use of chemical weapons. 

Liu Jiangyong is Vice Director of the Institute of Contemporary International Relations at Qinghua University. 

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