Can China and Japan ever become best neighbours?

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 August, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 August, 2003, 12:00am

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Peace and Friendship Treaty between China and Japan.

The treaty proclaimed that both countries would 'develop relations of perpetual peace and friendship', but they have shown little enthusiasm for celebrating the year so far - no large-scale commemorative events, no outpouring of warm feelings and no plans for a Sino-Japanese summit.

But it was very different 25 years ago. In 1978, Chinese Vice-Premier Deng Xiaoping, who had just consolidated his position as China's paramount leader, took 70 delegates to Japan to mark the treaty's birth - the highest level of Chinese leadership ever to visit Japan at that time. But the road to reconciliation between the two countries has been bumpy and often scattered with barriers. In fact, a number of 'f' words may well capture the state of Sino-Japanese relations in this period.

Friend or foe? Few bilateral relations in the world have used so much official rhetoric on friendship as China and Japan in the past two- and-a-half decades. Indeed, the close economic interdependence of the two has gone far beyond the expectations of the generation who signed the treaty. Japan is China's largest trading partner while China ranks first in Japan's foreign trade. Japan has provided well over 50 per cent of China's total foreign development aid, and the amount of Japanese investment in China is second only to that of Hong Kong.

Yet such deepening economic ties have not translated into enhanced friendship, despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of Japanese and Chinese now work and live in each other's countries; and that millions of people from both sides have visited the other.

In a survey in 1980, 79 per cent of Japanese chose China as their favourite country, overtaking the United States. But today, more than 50 per cent of Japanese say they don't feel friendly towards China. And in a recent poll, more than 80 per cent of Chinese respondents had a negative impression of Japan.

So the standard liberal theory that increased interaction between peoples will lead to mutual understanding and co-operation does not seem to fit in this case. Some point to Japan's growing power in the 1980s and the rapid modernisation of China since 1990 as mainly responsible for problems in bilateral relations. Currently, many in both countries see each other's expanding military capabilities as a potential threat. Rather than talking friendship, the two nations often look to history for the roots of their rivalry.

Forgotten or fatigued? 'History, if not forgotten, is a guide for the future,' goes a Chinese saying that has become the standard lecture note in its dealings with Japan. To many Chinese, the Japanese government, dominated by the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), has never sincerely reflected on its past atrocities against the Chinese people, and has never formally apologised.

But Japanese politicians have not forgotten history. Many prime ministers and politicians make regular pilgrimages to the Yasukuni shrine, dedicated to the Japanese killed in the second world war, including war criminals.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's repeated visits to the shrine have angered the mainland so much that it is refusing to invite him to China.

Recently, Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara insisted on calling Chinese people shinajin (China man), a derogatory word that was only used before 1945. And an LDP heavyweight recently called the Nanking massacre a fabrication. Such 'mishaps' happen on a regular basis.

The hardliners in Japan are irritated by Chinese criticism. 'We are fatigued by China's historical bombardment,' a hawkish Japanese government official told me off the record. Others claim that China is using history as a tool to gain leverage over Japan.

For this reason, recent signs that new Chinese leaders might be willing to 'soften' their stance on historical issues made headlines in Japan. But China is not willing to forget history altogether. Both sides have yet to find ways to move forward.

One positive step, Japan argues, would be to develop a 'future-oriented' relationship. In 1998, Japan and South Korea signed a joint communique at the end of president Kim Dae-jung's visit to Tokyo, announcing that the past was behind the two peoples and a new, future-oriented era had begun. Japan has since showcased this 'new model' and tried to persuade China to adopt such an approach.

The problem is that the latest opinion surveys show that a large majority of South Koreans think that the history issue with Japan is far from over. In China, those who advocate future-oriented 'new thinking' in handling Sino-Japanese relations are rapidly losing ground to critics. Pessimists in both countries are, after 25 years of searching for friendship, pondering if fate is leading China and Japan on a collision course.

The challenge for the leadership in both capitals now is how to manage the coexistence of two great powers in East Asia, neither as friends nor foes, but as fellow human beings.

Wenran Jiang, twice a Japan Foundation Fellow, is associate professor of political science at the University of Alberta, Canada