Welcome to installment XLIV (September 2022) of Sino-Japanese Review, a monthly column on major developments in relations between China and Japan that provides a running commentary on the evolution of this important relationship and helps to put current events in perspective.
September 29th marked the 50th anniversary of the 1972 joint communique between Japan and China that normalized their diplomatic relations. The road between then and now has been tumultuous, to say the least. Today, ties between the two countries are once again facing a period of uncertainties and tensions, making the anniversary anything but cheerful. Tokyo and Beijing continue to show a pragmatic understanding of the need for some stability and dialogue in such an important relationship but have very different visions for its future. The prospects for a renewed diplomatic entente looking toward the next 50 years is therefore quite dim.
After a slow start and a honeymoon at the end of the Cold War, economic relations really took off along with the rise of China in the 1990s and 2000s. In the meantime, episodes of tensions and crisis over history and territorial issues have gained in intensity, interspersed with short-lived periods of diplomatic rapprochement. Such periods in the late 1990s and late 2000s produced two important political documents (a “partnership” concluded between General Secretary Jiang Zemin and Prime Minister Obuchi Keizo and a “strategic relation of mutual benefits” between Hu Jintao and Abe Shinzo) that sought to give Sino-Japanese relations a solid and lasting basis. Neither effort had much success due to history issues for the first and territorial ones for the second.
The most recent period of rapprochement also came to a premature end, this time due to both sides’ decision to cut back international travel in response to the covid-19 pandemic. Xi Jinping had been meant to visit Tokyo in the spring of 2020, and a new political document was being discussed. Instead, diplomatic relations mostly froze, like everything else. Since then, the growing US-China strategic rivalry and heightening tensions around Taiwan have created renewed frictions and uncertainty in Sino-Japanese relations. None could therefore expect a celebratory mood for this 50th anniversary. September 29th was marked only by receptions in both capitals and by boilerplate congratulatory messages exchanged between the heads of the two states.
A bit more substantive was a commemorative symposium held jointly by the Chinese embassy in Tokyo and by the Japanese Business Federation (Keidanren) on September 12th. The foreign ministers of both sides gave speeches by video while dignitaries and experts discussed the current state and future of the relationship. The Chinese side used the occasion to put its position across in clear terms. Foreign minister Wang Yi warned against “the slightest ambiguity” regarding historical issues and Taiwan, “the wrong practice of decoupling”, and outside “interference” in the relationship – presumably from the US. He and other diplomats repeatedly evoked the need to put Sino-Japanese relations on the “correct” path by avoiding such dangers. At another event a few days earlier, a former Chinese ambassador made clear who was at fault for straying from this “correct path”. It was, he argued, “Japan’s failure to adjust and change its mind-set and attitude toward China’s rapid development, and an inability to reorient relations with China on that basis” that had caused turmoil between the two countries in recent years.
The message coming from Beijing does not require much interpretation to be understood, then: China’s rise to become the dominant power in Asia is inevitable and will bring about “reunification” with Taiwan. The “meddling” US is in decline and will eventually retreat across the Pacific Ocean. As China’s neighbor, Japan should make its peace with this, accept a subordinate place in a Sinocentric order, and be grateful for the prosperity to be gained from economic exchanges with the mainland.
Needless to say, Japan rejects this vision of the future. Yet it has made no effort to present an alternative on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the relationship. The Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs did little to publicize Foreign Minister Hayashi Yoshimasa’s speech at the aforementioned symposium, which merited only passing mentions in the Japanese media. Hayashi limited himself to the standard Japanese call to build a “constructive and stable relationship” and to stressing the “responsibility” of the two neighbors to maintain regional peace and stability. Commentaries in the press about the anniversary were universally pessimistic regarding the trajectory of the relationship and the prospect of an amelioration in bilateral tensions. An opinion poll released by the NGO NPO Genron on the occasion revealed widespread ignorance of the anniversary and dissatisfaction among those able to form an opinion about the current state of Sino-Japanese ties.
Nevertheless, ordinary citizens, experts, journalists and politicians were united in stressing the need to maintain avenues for dialogue open and to resume high level meetings after the interruption forced by the global pandemic. No matter the very poor perceptions of China in the archipelago, no one seriously disputes the importance for Tokyo to continue to engage Beijing and to not let the numerous sources of tensions between the two states completely derail a relationship vital both for themselves and for regional and global stability.
Even if there is little to celebrate on this 50th anniversary, then, there is some comfort in knowing that both sides remain pragmatic and willing to maintain a somewhat constructive diplomatic relation despite heightened security tensions in the East China Sea. They will have a chance to prove that at the upcoming G20 summit in Jakarta, where there is talk of a meeting between Kishida and Xi. This could even be the occasion to relaunch discussions about a new political document. Differing visions of the future and the all-too-real risk of a conflagration over Taiwan will however cast a long shadow over any attempt to find a solid foundation for the Sino-Japanese relationship, no matter the importance both sides say they attach to it.
Antoine Roth is assistant professor at the Faculty of Law of Tohoku University, working on Sino-Japanese relations, China's foreign relations, and East Asian international affairs. He holds a PhD in International Politics from the University of Tokyo and a MA in Asian Studies from the George Washington University and a BA in International Relations from the University of Geneva. He has previously worked at the Swiss Embassy in Tokyo and has been a visiting student at Fudan University in Shanghai.
Andrea A. Fischetti is a government scholar conducting research on Asia-Pacific Affairs and East Asian Security at the University of Tokyo and at the Asia Pacific Initiative. He was a visiting student at the Hiroshima Peace Institute of Hiroshima City University, and a research assistant at the House of Commons in the British Parliament. Mr. Fischetti earned his MA in War Studies from King’s College London, following a BA with First Class Honours in International Relations, Peace and Conflict Studies.