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Foreign Policy

US Stance Shapes Course of Sino-Japanese Ties

Feb 08 , 2014

The United States’ stance and policy has historically carried heavy weight in the relationship between China and Japan. It will continue to do so in the future.

For example, in 1931, Japan staged the September 18 Incident to start its war of aggression against China, ignoring condemnations from the international community. Two years later, Japan seceded from the League of Unions and became the source of the Far East War. On July 7, 1937, the Japanese army provoked the Marco Polo Bridge Incident. However, after weighing the pros and cons, the Japanese government decided not to declare war on China although it would go on with the aggression. Tokyo worried that an official declaration of war would prompt the U.S. to invoke the Neutrality Act to ban exports of war materials such as petroleum and scrap metal to Japan.

In 1960s, when China and Japan negotiated for normalization of their diplomatic relationship, a major obstacle was the U.S.-Japan alliance. And it was just because of the improvement of the Sino-U.S. relationship that made it possible for China and Japan to finalize the normalization of their diplomatic ties. That was also triggered by Japan’s resentment over Washington’s “jump-over diplomacy”, a reference to U.S. President Richard Nixon’s failure to inform Tokyo about his plan to visit China before hand as had been promised to Prime Minister Eisaku Sato. In 1978, when the negotiation between China and Japan reached a deadlock over whether an “anti-hegemony clause” targeting the Soviet Union should be included in the Sino-Japanese Treaty for Peace and Friendship, U.S. President Jimmy Carter sent Zbigniew Brzezinski to help Tokyo drop its misgivings.

In the unbalanced triangular relations among China, the U.S. and Japan, Washington always gives backing to Tokyo. The U.S.-Japan alliance has been the foundation for Tokyo’s diplomacy and lends it a strong confidence on issues such as regional security. With regard to the Diaoyu Islands, the Potsdam Proclamation states explicitly that “Japanese sovereignty shall be limited to the islands of Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, Shikoku and such minor islands as we determine.” The Diaoyu Islands, and even the Ryukyu Islands, are not part of the said area but are China’s territory. When Japan returned Taiwan to China at the end of World War II, Diaoyu and its adjacent islets should be lumped together in the returning. In 1972, however, the U.S. privately handed over the administration of the Diaoyu Islands to Japan. It was very irresponsible for the U.S. to do so, for it was fully aware of the ins and outs of the Diaoyu issue. Washington’s statement that it opposes “the unilateral act of breaking the status quo of Japan administering (Diaoyu)” is improper for it will encourage Japan in its illusion about the sovereignty over the Diaoyu Islands.

The US is sort of playing a role of “controller” in the Sino-Japanese relations. By doing so it hopes to have both countries working towards U.S.’ own interests. On the one hand, Washington hopes that the Sino-Japanese relationship remains neither too close nor too distant and continues to be rivaling but does not fall apart. A worsened Sino-Japanese relationship is favorable for the U.S. to extend its influence in Asia Pacific. On the other hand, Washington adopts an ambiguous attitude on Sino-Japanese disputes over historical problems. Some realist scholars and neo-conservative politicians in the US vigorously urge Washington to contain China and form a circle of allies to besiege China, in which Japan is an important link. Some others think the other way round. They argue that China’s rapid development brings opportunities for China and the U.S. to realize mutually beneficial cooperation and achieve win-win results. With regard to the Sino-Japanese relations, they call for policies that are conductive to stability and development in Asia Pacific, which, they argue, are in the U.S.’ interests.

The stance of the U.S. determines the orientation of the development of Sino-Japanese relations. Asia Pacific has been one of the U.S.’ strategic focuses. The U.S. has a major influence on both China and Japan in their security and development. Since the end of World War II, Japan has been following the US’ strategies. Its relationship with the US is the basis of its foreign policies, especially its China policy. Admittedly the current stalemate between China and Japan should be attributed to the shifting of the balance of power and Japan’s domestic politics. In a certain sense, however, the U.S.’ behavior also attributed to the tension of the Sino-Japanese relations. The U.S. expects and has encouraged Japan to play a more radical role in the Asia-Pacific region while overly exaggerated the rise of China’s regional presence. These acts led to the worsening of the Sino-Japanese disputes. For the sake of maintaining peace and security in Asia Pacific, the U.S. should explicitly express opposition to Japan’s moves of distorting historical facts and embellishing its aggressive past, so as to prevent Japan from going farther on the road of expanding arms, revising the pacifist Constitution and reviving militarism.

Jiang Yuechun is Director of the Department of World Economy and Development Studies at the China Institute of International Studies.

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