Can China and Japan, the second- and third-largest economies in the world, ever set aside their historical enmity and work together closely for the collective good of all in this part of the world?

This is not an idle or naive question. In fact, it is quite apposite in view of the escalating tension between them over territorial disputes in the East and South China Sea, with each sending more and more fighter aircraft and warships to those contentious waters to test the other’s resolve, thus increasing the chances of a confrontation spinning rapidly out of control.

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And the answer?

Alas, in the short to medium term of, say, the next five to 10 years, it is a regrettable no. Over a longer period, I would venture a qualified, if somewhat optimistic, yes. It is not written in the stars that the two nations, with so much in common culturally, including characters in the written Chinese language that the Japanese have adopted as kanji, are destined to be at daggers drawn forever.

No doubt, the odds against a rapprochement are heavy. They had fought two bitter wars since July 25,1894, resulting in huge casualties, especially on the Chinese side. The widely accepted estimate of Chinese deaths in the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), as recounted by Oxford historian Rana Mitter in his celebrated book on this bloody conflict, is 14 million to 20 million. In sharp contrast, Japanese invasion forces suffered only about 1.7 million deaths, according to a Japanese Imperial Army declaration then.

The savagery of the Japanese invaders could not but leave deep scars in the Chinese psyche. Indeed, painful memories linger among many Chinese even now, though this is not the case for the majority of today’s Japanese, not least because they have been brought up in deliberate ignorance of what their forefathers did to China, Korea and other countries during that shameful period of their history.

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But short of Beijing and Tokyo allowing themselves to sleepwalk into another massive armed conflict, the term used by Professor Christopher Clark of Cambridge University to describe how the European powers ended up starting the first world war, there is nothing inevitable about another Sino-Japanese war, which will be truly catastrophic given the massively destructive weapons both are capable of deploying.

The two can come to terms with each other. They need only look at the examples of reconciliation set by nations that had been sworn enemies for decades, if not centuries – England and France despite their Hundred Years’ War, and France and Germany, which had fought each other since the 16th century but are now allies committed to realising the grand vision of an integrated Europe.

In the latter case, it was Europe’s great fortune that there were visionaries like Konrad Adenauer, Robert Schuman and Jean Monnet who had the courage and wisdom to cast aside the baggage of history and dedicate their lives to building a Europe forever at peace. Hence, the Schuman Plan of May 9, 1950, to that end, and the 1963 peace treaty between Germany and France.

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Sadly, there seem to be no such voices in the corridors of power in Beijing or Tokyo at the moment. But it cannot be that the millions of highly intelligent people in China and Japan will remain permanently blind to the stupendous opportunities that await their two nations if they can find the will and wherewithal to work together. Or that not enough of them will find their way into positions of influence eventually to steer their compatriots, step by careful step, towards this lofty objective. The alternative is a slow descent down the perilous path of mutual destruction.

Three conditions have first to be met, though, before genuine reconciliation can happen. First, there needs to be an appreciation of how tension between them has developed over the past many centuries and why. Second, upon that understanding, the political elite in both countries, accepting that what caused the historical estrangement no longer exists, must act with sagacity and courage to narrow the gulf.

And finally, enough ordinary Chinese and Japanese see through the folly of letting their unwarranted misconceptions about each other persist and fester, and, in the absence of any bold initiative from the top to break the impasse, lead their leaders, for a change, in breaking the mould in which their bilateral relations have been set for so long.

How did Sino-Japanese relations end up in the proverbial Gordian Knot? I think the root cause is how Japan has perceived itself since it proclaimed itself a nation called Japan (Nippon) in the year 702 and what it has construed as threats to its identity and security. In this regard, Japan has almost always been the dominant actor setting the tone of bilateral relations, with China in the passive position of responding to whatever the Japanese initiated.

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Put bluntly, the emerging Japanese nation-state at that time suffered from an inferiority complex towards China even though, or perhaps because, it borrowed so much, culturally and in other ways, from the Chinese. Writing in 1985, the late Japanese historian and sinologist Sadao Nishijima said the imperial court then felt compelled to assert its legitimacy by claiming parity with China and refusing to be included in Chinese official records as a vassal state even though it kept sending gifts to the Tang Dynasty.

But parity meant that Japan must acquire its own vassals. So it had to cast around for one. Korea, the buffer state between China and Japan, was the obvious choice. In fact, Japan had cast covetous eyes on Korea even from the time when it was known, not as Japan, but as Wo, a pejorative term disparaging the Japanese people’s lack of height. In 663, an invasion force of 40,000 Yamato troops on board 800 ships sailed into an estuary in Korea but was roundly defeated by 13,000 Tang Dynasty soldiers on board 170 vessels who had gone to the aid of the Silla Kingdom.

That was the epic Battle of Baekgang. However, defeat did nothing to douse Japanese ambitions to lord over Korea, which Japanese historian Makoto Yoshino said, in a book published in 2002, were integral to the quest to be an equal to China. On the contrary, the humiliation was seared into the mind of the ruling Japanese elite for successive generations. Thus were sown the seeds of rivalry with China.

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Baekgang rankled the Japanese for centuries. On Aug 14, 1946, a year after Japan surrendered to the Allied Powers, Emperor Hirohito invited the then prime minister, Shigeru Kishida, and his predecessor, Kantaro Suzuki, to tea. According to records kept by the head of the Imperial Household Agency, Shuichi Inada, the emperor, expressing regret for the defeat, said that was not the first time that Japan had lost a war.

Invoking Baekgang, he said it had turned out to be a major turning point, spurring wave after wave of reform that culminated in Japan’s transformation into the formidable military power that it was before the second world war. He told the two political leaders to learn from that, adding that they would then realise what path Japan should embark on.

How that enigmatic remark has since been interpreted by the political elite in Japan, especially the ultra-nationalists, is outside the scope of this commentary, but suffice to say that any attempt to revive past military glory would be the gravest mistake Japan could make. There is nothing for Japan to prove in terms of seeking parity with China, and to allow that meaningless goal to continue, subconsciously, as the subtext in calibrating its relations with its giant neighbour would be plain silly.

But what of Japan’s threat perceptions? Can Japan’s stance towards China be explained by its assessment of the latter as a danger to its security? As far as records show, up till 1937 when it launched its invasion of China, there was nothing in Japan’s strategic thinking that identified China as a threat. Indeed, China had never attempted anything that could be construed as such, save for an invasion launched in 1274 by Mongolian forces then ruling China. Even then, the entire Mongolian fleet was sunk by a typhoon before it reached Japanese shores.

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In a seminal treatise on Japan’s sovereignty and national interest, Aritomo Yamagata, an influential strategist and thinker who became prime minister in 1889, argued that the real threats to Japan’s security would come from Russia via the Korean peninsula and Manchuria. The Russians were building a railway there that could let them amass troops on the shores facing Japan. To Yamagata and his disciples, China had been too weak for too many centuries to even figure in the jostling for primacy among the ranking powers of the day. It was just an easy prey for the Western imperialist powers; Japan needed only to make sure of its share of the spoils.

This assessment became the cornerstone of Japanese strategic thinking. It led directly to the Japanese incursion into the Korean peninsula and war in 1904 with tsarist Russia, which it defeated. That victory stunned the Western world and established Japan’s position as a first-rank power.

Three decades or so later, Britain and the United States were identified as threats too, not to Japan’s security but to its ambition to conquer and rule Asia as leader of the Great East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. Hence, the pre-emptive strike on Pearl Harbour.

What about now? It would take a real stretch of the imagination to believe that China, which has enough domestic problems for the next three generations of its leaders to solve, would unilaterally launch an unprovoked attack against Japan. I suspect that deep in their hearts, most of the political elite in Japan know this, but the ultra-nationalists among them will still want to play up the Chinese threat for their own political ends.

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As far as I can see, there are only two major irritants in Sino-Japanese relations. The first is the dispute over ownership of the Diaoyu or Senkaku islands, and the second, the continued denial by right-wing politicians of the undeniable – that Japanese troops committed atrocities in Korea and China, including the Nanjing Massacre – and their refusal to face up to their ugly past squarely.

Both are not insurmountable. In 1972, the then supreme Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping suggested that the sovereignty dispute be set aside for wiser leaders in future to sort out. And it had been – until September 2012 when the Japanese government “bought” the disputed islands from their supposed private owner. That brought up all over again the subsiding quarrel about sovereignty and reignited passions, to a point where an armed clash cannot now be ruled out.

Chances of both sides backing down are zero at the moment. The present Shinzo Abe administration does not even want to acknowledge that there is a dispute. Chinese leader Xi Jinping and his team cannot, and will not, concede either and have made it clear that while China does not want to start a war, it is not afraid of fighting one. So the best that the rest of the world can hope for is sufficient restraint on both sides not to start shooting – and a return to the Deng formula of setting aside what cannot be solved in the foreseeable future.

For now, I do not see the next set of Japanese leaders as being any wiser or more circumspect in their approach to relations with China. In fact, the newly elected Tokyo governor, Yuriko Koike, now touted as a possible first woman prime minister, is even more hawkish. She is on public record as even doubting that the Nanjing Massacre ever took place.

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In a recent column syndicated around the world, she praised Abe’s maternal grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, a former prime minister himself, for having the courage and wisdom to set aside memories of the nuclear devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by American forces and work with the US to build a new international order.

Then she wrote this: “Kishi’s actions, like those of Konrad Adenauer, Charles de Gaulle, Alcide De Gasperi and others in Europe at the dawn of European integration, demonstrate one of the reasons the post-war international system has endured for so long: It was built by statesmen in the truest sense of the word. These were leaders whose vision extended well beyond concern for their own political careers, and who had the wisdom and courage to act upon their understanding of what a future of peace and prosperity would require.

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“This is how historical memory should be used, not as a means to stoke citizens’ anger against others, in order to deflect their attention from pressing domestic problems, as some leaders do, but to show that in our pain, we share a common humanity that demands our allegiance. That allegiance must overcome our differences of interest, culture and, most of all, past actions. It is only in our ability to share our sorrows and our humanity, that any of us can stand before the sacred dead of Hiroshima.”

No prize for guessing whose leaders she is pointing her finger at. The kindest comment one could make is that she should read these lines back to her cohort of politicians – and to herself. Perhaps she will understand one day, if she does not already, that war memories remain an issue precisely because people like her insist on wrapping themselves in denial. That is unlikely to happen any time soon, of course, which is why it would take at least two cycles of leadership change in Tokyo before attitudes towards China can turn around.

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This leaves the people on both sides of the Sea of Japan as possibly the only source for a bottom-up push for better ties. Can it happen? Prospects are daunting but not hopeless.

In the annual opinion poll conducted jointly by Genron in Japan and China International Publishing Group since 2005, the latest findings are that the percentage of Chinese respondents who thought relations were bad dropped from 90.3 per cent in a 2013 survey to 67. 2 per cent last year. For Japanese respondents, the drop is from 83.4 per cent to 71.9 per cent.

Will relations improve? Chinese respondents who thought so remained at about 17.5 per cent over the past three years, compared with a slight improvement in Japanese sentiments from 8 to 12.7 per cent.

Both Japanese and Chinese respondents saw antagonism over territorial issues as a major obstacle to better ties. At the same time, those concerned with the lack of mutual trust between the Japanese and Chinese governments and peoples are on the rise in both countries.

However, the “unfavourable” impression of each other’s country recovered from the worst level of the past couple of years. The percentage of Chinese respondents with a “favourable” impression grew over 10 percentage points from 2014 while the percentage of Japanese who held an “unfavourable” impression dipped to 88.8, compared with the highest-ever figure of 93 per cent recorded for 2014.

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The most frequently mentioned reason for an “unfavourable” impression of China among Japanese people is “criticism of Japan over historical issues” (55.1 per cent, 2014: 52.2 per cent). Second is the reason that “China’s actions to secure resources, energy and food look selfish” (53 per cent, 2014: 52.8 per cent). The most frequently cited reason from last year’s poll, “China’s actions are incompatible with international rules”, came third with 47.9 per cent (2014: 55.1 per cent).

The percentage of those who mentioned that “confrontation continues over the Senkaku Islands” fell to 46.4 per cent (2014: 50.4 per cent), showing a decrease for the third consecutive year. A noticeable change – “China’s military build-up and non-transparency is evident” (31.2 per cent, 2014: 39.2 per cent).

On the Chinese side, 70.5 per cent of respondents cited “Japan’s lack of a proper apology and remorse over the history of invasion of China” as the key reason for their “unfavourable” impression – an increase of over 10 percentage points from 59.6 per cent last year. “Japanese purchase of the Diaoyu Islands for the nation and fuelling the confrontation” was cited by 68.1 per cent (2014: 64 per cent). These two are prominent in comparison to other reasons, as was the case with the 2014 survey.

On the Japanese side, 35.8 per cent (2014: 38.2 per cent) cited their interest in “China’s traditional culture and history” as a reason for their favourable impression. This is the most frequently mentioned reason. Following this, 34 per cent (2014: 39.7 per cent) of the respondents said it was “direct interaction with Chinese people, particularly with Chinese students in Japan, they are becoming familiar” that contributed to their favourable impression of China.

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As reasons for a favourable impression of Japan, 57 per cent (2014: 52.6 per cent) of Chinese respondents said that “Japanese are polite, and have good manners and high cultural standards”. The second most frequently cited reason is that “Japanese are earnest, diligent and hard-working”. Overall, satisfactory views of the Japanese people’s national character accounted for their favourable impression of Japan.

If these numbers say anything at all, it is that the Chinese and Japanese of today bear no real animosity towards each other. Here is the ground for some optimism. If the Japanese people can get to see the true historical picture – their government, mainstream media and textbooks have failed miserably on that score – they may yet come to terms with their wartime past, accept and put it behind them and insist that their politicians do too.

Once that happens, I believe the Chinese will want to move on as well. In 1945, the Chinese government, as victor, declined extracting war reparations from the Japanese. Not so the other Allied powers. I have not come across anything that suggests that Beijing now wants its pound of flesh.

So there is hope, faint, yes, but hope nonetheless.

Leslie Fong is a former editor of The Straits Times. This article first appeared in that publication.