Book review: China's Japan Policy: Adjusting to New Challenges, by Joseph Cheng Yu-shek

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 November, 2014, 8:27pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 November, 2014, 8:27pm

China's Japan Policy: Adjusting to New Challenges
by Joseph Cheng Yu-shek
World Scientific Publishing Co

When Shinzo Abe met Xi Jinping in Beijing earlier this month, the pictures told a thousand words: the Japanese prime minister was looking at Xi from an angle as the Chinese president shuffled forward with a pout.

Neither man came close to anything that could be described as a smile.

Sino-Japanese relations have often been fraught with difficulties and confrontation, but never in the postwar period has the situation been this chilly. And while editorial writers may have acclaimed the handshake as a new breakthrough that will lead to the relationship being rekindled, that sounds awfully like wishful thinking.

Professor Joseph Cheng Yu-shek's examination of the rocky road that characterises ties between the two most important nations in the Asia-Pacific region comes at an opportune time. At 458 pages of densely packed text, footnotes and bibliography, China's Japan Policy is an exhaustive dissection of the Tokyo-Beijing relationship since the end of the second world war.

Cheng, a political scientist with City University of Hong Kong, catalogues the improvements in ties under different governments, including the normalisation of relations in 1972, the vast volume of trade between them, and the interlacing of the two economies.

But the inescapable shadow that hangs over every word is history: the war may have ended 69 years ago, but many wounds are still raw.

Japan believes it has apologised adequately and, through ODA (Official Development Assistance), provided compensation. Beijing feels that every time a Japanese politician visits the Yasukuni Shrine or when new school textbooks tweak their references to the conflict, Tokyo is engaging in geopolitical point-scoring or appealing to the domestic audience.

From China's perspective, Japan has failed to show sufficient regret, and the prime minister and other politicians are rubbing the Chinese people's collective noses in the mud with every visit to Yasukuni.

Even after almost seven decades, the emotions and rivalry are still intense, still personal.

Cheng sees more uncertainty on the horizon as Japan and other Pacific states adjust to China's rapid economic and military growth. What is required from Japan, he suggests, is a "long-term vision combined with magnanimity" as China continues its peaceful rise and economic growth.

Rows over territory and history combined with fewer resources, growing nationalism and old-fashioned human nature make many people far less optimistic that this can be achieved.