Bosphorus Center for Asian Studies


Sino-Japanese Relations: Continuity in Pragmatism and Mistrust Spiral

Last year in August, Japan and China who celebrated the 40th Anniversary of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship, started a new phase to “normalize” their relations that was on icy ground since September, 2010. As a practical approach the term of “Normalize” was chosen for Sino-Japanese diplomatic detente which was arranged with a Joint Declaration in 29th of September, 1972. The term referred to abnormal state of Sino- Japanese relations due to Japan’s former accaptence of Tayvan as a sole representer of China and signing a Peace Treaty with pressure of the Cold War Period and the Korean War. That was an abnormal state, as the lands which was the ground for war and all crimes, belonged to mainland China. To date, the term of normalize is still popular and in use of academic circles and analysts referring to two actors’ attempts to improve bilateral relations. This situation give rise to two questions in minds: Japan and China despite their joint agreement of a detente, why still having problems to have full normalization of bilateral relations? and what normalization means for both party? This analyze will seek answers to those questions.

The first diplomatic ties between Japan and China date back to Han Dynasty (BCE 206- CE 220) in China and Yayoi Period (BCE 300- CE 300) in Japan. Those long period of bilateral relations; carry intense exchange of politic, institutional, religious/cultural traditions and headed mostly from old and more advanced China towards Japan. For Japan, the 9th century, was a beginning of to come round from dominant Chinese culture and developing their own unique one, right afterwards trade relations stood out compare to cultural and politic relations. Even in the “Isolation Stragey” period of Japan was put into practice by Tokugawa Ieyasu with 1639, never interrupted the trade relations that was operated by Nagasaki Harbour. That trade relations; were in China’s favour in the “Ming-Qing Tributary” period which provided bilateral trade concessions and survived between 1300-1900, and later were in Japan’s favour after defeating of China in the Sino-Japanese War in 1895 till the Japan’s defaeating in the II. World War. China had a share of 20% in Japan’s overall trade between these wars. That trade and concessions in China were guaranteed by unequal agreements and were protected by Japanese Army. After aforementioned defeat of Japan, those instutions and concessions were removed completely and started from scratch.

What behind the contemporary Japan-China relations’ path and issues are imbedded in the memoirs of Japan’s behaviours between the Sino-Japanese War and the II. World War period plus long historical position of China as a political, institutional, cultural and trade giant in the region. If any framework to set analyse after War Japan and China relations respecting named above influences, a simple formulation with 2 models act like a spiral can be achieved: first a model emphasises joint cooperation with a stres on trade and also pragmatist in nature can be seen when regional or global conjuncture present a challange for both actors. As a second, a model which puts stress on bilateral mistrust arising from past and insoluble issues and distrustful in nature presents when there is no need for bilateral cooperation or no threat perception in Japan’s side due to conjunctural circumstances. These two models are to fit together with International Relations Theory and cooperation&conflict debates which also being applied to East Asia international relations. But what differs these models are being applied to Japan China relations here is: these two models act together like a spiral; when one is stand in the forefront other acts on the background and none of them die/dissappear completely and also as those relations are fragile to outer circumstances/conjuncture mark what determines which model will be in front is regional/global conjuncture but any actor’s preference.

After mentioned two different period of Japan China relations as a testimony of the spiral model represent here indicates that: despite the certain time gap between two testimomy time period choosen here to analyse, it is clear that same pattern of relations- named above two models- repeats itself in Japan-China relations.

The normalization of Japan China relations -as first testimony- took place with the impact of global and regional conjuncture. United States’ (US) President Richard Nixon initiated Sino-American detente and decided to make a political retreat from East Asia and Vietnam shocked Japan and forced to make a movement towards China for political detente. What made Japan to make a move is after Okinawa was returned to Japan in 1972 by US with the withdrawal initiative, Taiwan’s importance for Japan’s security increased. As if Sino-American detente takes place, Taiwan’s future will be uncertain plus America’s feasible withdrawal caused a threat perception in Japan whose security was provided by US are detrimental for Japan. When Japan and China signed Joint Declaration for detente, Senkaku Islands issue and/or expectations of China for Japan’s apologize for war crimes which are still unsoluable issues up today, kept in background, cooperation and trade took first place due to 1969 Sino-Soviet dispute, Nixon Shocks due to cancellation of dollar’s gold standard and oil crisis in 1973. China, behaved pragmatist, due to conjuntral circumstances such as Soviet threat/hegemonia and her need for technical and monetary aid for development. Japan as well behaved pragmatist, avoided to have security issues in the region and took advantage of huge China market for her own development. But, none of those issues such as war time memoirs/crimes or island disputes, were not mentioned in forefront, but they acted as a catalyst for The Treaty of Peace and Frienship that could be signed after 6 years of intense negotiations.

The current Japan-China relations –as second testimony- has been fragile to conjunctural circumstances. Japan with the helping of Barrack Obama’s Pivot to Asia strategy which gave importance to regional instutions was more assertive and secure as of 2011. Japan’s foreign behaviours such as no president of Japan visited China on an official level for seven years, also visiting of soldiers’ graveyards fought in China and attempting to change historical textbooks in her own favour about war times were all indicators of assertive Japan. The period starting from 2010 till 2018 was a tense period for bilateral relations and the year of 2012 was a rock bottom in Japan China relations for many analysts. China, on the other part, behaved more assertively in the region in general, in the South China Sea in particular and gave tonque to historical issues with Japan. Moreover, China has started One Belt One Road (OBOR) iniative which builds a network on old territoryal and marine Silk Roads to boost trade and foreign policy behaviours regarding South China disputes indicates that China altered “Peaceful Development” strategy to assertive foreign policy in the region. On the other hand, prior to deterioration of relations, China overhauled US for the first time and became Japan’s biggest trade partner and Japan is only second to US as China’s trading partner. No matter which issues take the forefront in that period, bilateral trade relations have a contiunity in uptrend.

Contemporary Japan China relations are no exception to their past relationship patterns and the detente which started last August after 8 years turmoil was a result of conjunctural change in the region. In Donald Trump Era, anamnestically with Nixon Era, US receded from Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). Afterwards, US emphasised that bilateral economic relations will be strenghten instead of regional institutions. Last but not least, the US-China trade wars which will leave own mark upon these years also pushed China for more assertive foreign policy and forced Japan to initiate for cooperation with China. Japan, actually, attempted for TPP leadership after American withdrawal from the partnership and has moves to increase her influence in the region. In addition, there is Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy (FOIP) that Japan and US operate together to increase their power over marine trade network which cross paths with Silk Road Marine routes. But, due to declining American power in the region and security threats of North Korea origin, the scale was turned and push Japan toward cooperation with China. Thence, for Japan China relations, “the normalization” that is to say to strenghten cooperation mutually, stands in the forefront. But this normalization can only conceal historical issues but to mean reducing them to ashes.

BAAM Guest Author