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Deepening freeze between Japan and China

By Henry Leong - posted Thursday, 16 March 2006

Relations between China and Japan continue to be defined by animosity and unresolved bilateral issues, centreing on what Beijing considers to be Tokyo’s failure to make satisfactory recompenses for its wartime atrocities. Despite decades of normalisation, Sino-Japanese relations continue to be a discourse built on old tensions and new rivalries.

China’s constant annoyance at Japan’s insistence on paying homage to its war heroes is understandable. Beijing considers such actions as deliberate, rubbing salt into the wounds of memories that ought to have been resolved. For the Chinese, it is irrefutable evidence that the Japanese elite and the public regard the war episode as a milestone in Japanese nationalism rather than as an occasion to show remorse. The remorse that Germany displayed over the Holocaust, epitomised by former Chancellor Helmut Kohl praying at Auschwitch, is absent in Tokyo’s handling of the atrocities committed at Nanking, and the issue of comfort women and other related war crimes.

However, Beijing’s verbal ballistic appears to be ineffective as Tokyo has long exorcised the ghost of its wartime actions and has moved ahead to define itself as becoming a “normal” country under the US-Japan alliance. Japan knows there is little China can do except to engage in nationalistic outburst. The reality is that the Yasukuni Shrine issue is a thorn in the side of the Beijing leadership but it is one that is kept alive for material and strategic ends. The utility of exploiting the war issue is fast losing its value. China is perhaps the only country that refuses to accept any form of apology and restitution from Japan, and willingly remains a victim of its own bitter memories.


Notwithstanding the issue, Japan says managing its deteriorating ties with China has become critical amid warnings that military conflict between the neighbours could draw in the United States.

In recently concluded bilateral talks, Japan and China reconfirmed there is no change in their basic positions to promote friendly and co-operative relations into the future. But relations remain strained over Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s insistence on paying homage to the war dead, including the World War II leaders convicted and executed as war criminals. The bilateral talks also follow the reduction in trade figures between the two East Asian economies for the first time. This is an ominous turn of events considering that both Beijing and Tokyo are economically complementary.

This sense of mutual mistrust and suspicion is predicated on a shifting geopolitical centre of gravity. The revised US-Japan Alliance now includes ensuring the security and stability of Taiwan. Japan has intensified its research and development of the Theatre Missile Defence project with the US, which threatens to neutralise Beijing’s ability to counter any attacks with its second strike nuclear deterrence.

The military capability of the Self Defence Force is impressive as Tokyo maintains the myth of Article 9 provided by the security umbrella of Washington. The US Navy maintains a supreme reign over the Sea Lanes of Communication and China grudgingly relies on the security it provides to ensure its oil supplies from the Middle East reache China safely.

While the US is scaling down its troop presence in the Korean peninsula, it is by no means withdrawing from the region. The reduction in quantity is more than made up for by strategic upgrades in qualitative, high tech and rapidly deployed battle groups. The recent move by Washington to create a new generation nuclear arsenal fits into the overall picture of US determination to maintain its position as the sole superpower. China may have the upper hand now in the Six Party Talks but it may not be able to contain the fall out if the prolonged diplomatic stalemate and Pyongyang’s game of nuclear blackmail forces the hand of the US to attempt another pre-emptive strike.

On the one hand, China cannot help but feel encircled by a growing US presence and on the other hand, it struggles to maintain its diplomatic space. The recent East Asian Summit at Kuala Lumpur in December may have been a coup de grace for Beijing, leaving the Japanese marginalised and the US watching the historic gathering from the sidelines. But the strategic US-Japan realignment and Washington’s extension of its influence to India have more than neutralised China’s gain in creating an alternative playing field based on multilateralism rather than bilateralism.


The epoch-making deal between President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India could well signal an enlargement of the “coalition of the willing” not just to fight terrorism but to contain China. With the US presence in all parts of Asia, China cannot help but feel entrapped although it remains committed to its peaceful economic development rhetoric. Only time will tell if Beijing’s strategy of not confronting and countering US strategic moves will give way to a situation resembling great power rivalries.

A pessimistic reading of these recent developments will raise the possibility of flashpoints triggering a larger conflict. The Taiwan problem and the North Korean issue will continue to simmer, with one of the two issues taking turns to pose security challenges to the Asia Pacific region. Chen Shuibian’s abolition of the reunification council is a disturbing development, and so is President’s Bush praise for Taipei’s progressive form of democracy for Beijing. We should not conclude that China’s frequent outburst over Taiwan’s intransigence is a mere paper tiger. There is no telling how China would react when territorial sovereignty is compromised, since this has been the key driver when Beijing does resort to armed conflicts to resolved disputes.

The optimistic prediction is that Chinese and Japanese politicians who pursue their respective national interests will learn to accommodate each other on shared values of maintaining peace and security in the region. The Sino-Japanese rivalry will continue amid parallel projects on co-operation in energy, trade and other forms of confidence-building measures.

At present, it is hard for one to remain hopeful as relations continue to be based on old animosities and unresolved tensions. Has a silent, unofficial cold war begun between China and Japan? No, certainly not at all. But prolonged Sino-Japanese tensions will certainly sour the fruits of peace built over the years and create a contagious effect of uneasy restiveness over the Asia Pacific community.

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About the Author

Henry Leong is a graduate student in international relations at the Australian National University. His research interest is in Asian Security, particularly, in alliances and multilateralism. He trained as an archivist in Singapore.

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