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For Chinese neighbours, caution is the byword and trade the catchword - part two

By Tony Henderson - posted Monday, 27 June 2005

Last week in On Line Opinion I began by examining China’s relationships with some of its geographical neighbours and with industry competitors. This week I continue.


China's extensive territorial waters are principally the seas of its western shores, washed by the marginal waters of the Pacific, from the northern-most Korea Bay, and Yellow Sea, down to the East China and South China Seas. Across the sea lies Japan with its importance as a long-term trader with China and having economic and cultural clout. But there is also a tainted historical connection between these countries due to the two World Wars last century and other altercations in the more distant past.

Although the culture of Japan has been localised it still owes a huge cultural debt to China (and Korea).


Two wars were waged by Japan against China, the 1894-95 war and the 1931-45 war, both intending to expand Japan to the mainland. The territory gained in the First Sino-Japanese War (Korea) and in the 1930s (Manchuria and Shanghai) was returned at the end of World War II. Consequently the necessity to trade is marred by sharp reminders of past problems and relations are constantly on edge. Politically, Korea and Japan are so close either one easily catches cold any time China sneezes.

To properly understand the motives underlying Japan’s policy towards China it is necessary to understand the spirit of liberalism that developed in Japan in the latter part of the 19th century. This spirit of liberalism genuinely lay behind the Japanese wish to help its neighbours in the Far East, such as China, which Japan believed was being exploited by western powers. And it was.

Later, this impulse to help the neighbouring countries was seized upon by the nationalists as an excuse to extend Japanese influence in the region. The entire exercise degenerated into empire building. This then alienated those forces willing Japan to play a strong role in the revitalisation of Asia. Today, on the street, there is a lack of trust between China and Japan.

China and Japan have been rivals for the past 1,000 years. For much of that time, China had the upper hand. From the mid-19th to the late 20th centuries China was in decline while Japan was rising. For the past 30 years, since Deng Xiaoping began changing China’s economy to market-led capitalism, China has been on the up again. Meanwhile Japan has economically confounded itself since the 1990s.

Despite the public altercations, there are many signs that East Asia’s two great powers are edging closer together. Very recently, China overtook America to become Japan’s biggest trade partner. Japan has been China’s biggest trading partner in three of the past four years. Besides trade, both countries have worked with neighbours to broaden and deepen the East Asian community. China and Japan, along with South Korea and Russia, have willingly collaborated in the US-led effort to persuade North Korea to stop its nuclear-weapons program.


From an early date Korean politics turned isolationist with a strong desire to maintain the country's independence. China, although treated with deference, was kept at arm's length, and relations with other neighbours were not encouraged. In the West, Korea came to be known as the “Hermit Kingdom”.


But the country was unable to stop encroachment by neighbours. The Japanese invaded in the 16th century, attempting to use Korea as a gateway to China, but they were soundly defeated and forced to retreat. Early in the 17th century the Manchus came in from the north, establishing relations between Korea and the Qing Dynasty. Western influences also came into play during the 17th and 18th centuries in the form of Roman Catholic missionaries.

North Korea's independence started to crumble in the 19th century, beginning with the signing of a treaty with Japan in February 1876 and further treaties with the then major powers as China continued to meddle in Korean affairs.

The Chinese influence was brought to a close by the Sino-Japanese War (1894-95) and an accompanying rebellion in Korea. Japan sent troops to aid the rebels against Chinese forces in Korea and declared Korea independent after the Chinese had been defeated. Then began a 50-year period of effective Japanese control over Korea.

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Read part one here.

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About the Author

Tony Henderson is a freelance writer and chairman of the Humanist Association of Hong Kong.

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On Line Opinion - For Chinese neighbours, caution is the byword and trade the catchword - part one

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