When discussing the state of worsening China-Japan relations, there are those who pin the aggravation on the rise of China. They seem to suggest that had Beijing stagnated and remained in relative backwardness, the two Asian powers would have gotten along better. Accordingly, some argue that Beijing should put itself in Japan’s shoes, and understand why Japan reacts the way it does. And there are also people who expect Tokyo to adjust or even change its mindset altogether, and accept the reality of the rise of its neighbour.
Such reasoning may seem sound at first glance as it squares with the normal pattern of human psychology. After all, Japan had once been the world’s second largest economy, and used to be intoxicated by the dream laid out in Ezra Vogel’s Japan as Number One that “the 21st century shall be Japan’s century”. Now, faced with the present reality of having lost a decade (or even two or three decades), Tokyo certainly feels the sting of bitterness at seeing the rise of its neighbour.
Japan is a country for which rankings and superiority-inferiority distinctions are a big deal. The Japanese had lifted their homeland from a “fourth-rate nation” of the early postwar years (as determined by Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, General Douglas MacArthur or the “white-faced emperor”) to numero uno through many difficulties, only to see it slip down rapidly. We are talking about a people profoundly influenced since the Meiji period by the tenet of Yamato superiority. That they have complex sentiments towards the dominating neighbour is easily imaginable.
However, if on this basis alone we were to conclude that worsening China-Japan relations are mainly due to the shifting balance of strength between the two countries, we would be taking an overly simplistic and puerile view on the issue.
China’s prolonged weakness fuelled Japan’s temptation to expand
From the early modern period onwards, China had a period of prolonged weakness. More precisely, it was actually the norm from the First Sino-Japanese War to the end of World War II. During this period, China and Japan were not on friendly and peaceful terms with each other. In fact, this was a time when Japan was making its “northern advance” (hokushin) in full force, invading and occupying its neighbours. Here were the many years of open antagonism between Japan and China.
In reality, ever since Japan embarked on a path of strengthening itself financially and militarily from the Meiji Restoration of 1868 onwards, it had been coveting mainland China and the Korean Peninsula...
To quote a Japanese expert who has been fervently projecting China as a threat over the last two or three decades, the bilateral situation then came to this: “As the Chinese empire teetered on the verge of collapse, the Japanese people, who had ‘longings, insecurities and fears’ about China, went through a romantic era of indulging in the practice of ‘continental’ expansionism.”
There are three noteworthy points in the above statement:
(1) The Chinese empire teetering on the verge of collapse (that is to say, the neighbouring country was stricken with prolonged weakness);
(2) Longings, insecurities and fear thereby inspired in the Japanese people;
(3) The Japanese thereby being led into romantic ideas and actions of expansion into China.
To put it plainly, the reason Japan had inordinate designs on China (glamourised as “romantic” thoughts and actions) was that the latter was doing too poorly. In other words, it’s “you had it coming because you were weak”. This, of course, is a classic example of the “you-tempted-me-to-rob-you” argument.
It goes to show that ascribing the worsening of the two countries’ relations to the rise of China is untenable. In reality, ever since Japan embarked on a path of strengthening itself financially and militarily from the Meiji Restoration of 1868 onwards, it had been coveting mainland China and the Korean Peninsula, both of which were seen as being within Japan’s “line of interest”. As a result, Japan and China were never on amicable terms with each other.
The history of relations between post-Meiji Japan and its neighbours — especially in the earlier part of the Showa era, prior to World War II — was basically one of Japanese expansion into China and other Asian countries.
Perhaps because of their clear awareness of what marked this segment of diplomatic history and where the crux of the problem lay, certain Japanese historians concerned with their country’s “national interests and key policies” had to put forth in the early 1990s a suggestion for framing the pertinent issues — one which is seemingly academic and yet draws us to further ruminate on.
These historians argued that the view of China-Japan relations should not be restricted to the hundred years of Japanese expansionism; instead, people should adopt a wider perspective, and take into consideration the 150 years from around the Meiji period down to the decades after World War II, if not an even longer span of time. (In today’s context, they would have added 30 years to the postwar end.)
Under such a framework, all of the bilateral dynamics has to do with the rise and fall of national strength only. The question of which side was right or wrong becomes irrelevant.
According to the analysis by some people, to keep to a purview of 100 years would pretty much mean just pointing fingers at Japan for its history of outward encroachment. But when one widens the chronological range to 150 or 200 years, and takes into account China-Japan relations from earlier times or after WWII, the two countries would be seen as having undergone changes in relative strength. There were times when one side bullied the other, and vice versa.
Under such a framework, all of the bilateral dynamics has to do with the rise and fall of national strength only. The question of which side was right or wrong becomes irrelevant. That’s what makes the “balance of strength” theory and “geopolitics” so splendid and why they are being promoted.
‘There can never be two suns’ and constitutional revision
Needless to say, although I point out that the rise of China is not the key factor behind the worsening China-Japan relations, it does not mean that I deny there are misgivings or negative reactions on Tokyo’s part due to the neighbouring country’s growing ascendancy, or that I do not understand such stirrings.
Indeed, as summarised by the aforementioned proponent of the “Chinese threat” theory, a Japanese military academy instructor, the Land of the Rising Sun did have to deal with the issue of how to view China after the end of the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905).
According to the said proponent, the following opinion was expressed by a Japanese military official then posted in Germany: “If Japan and Qing China [the Qing dynasty] were to join forces and drive Russia out of the Far East, the situation would be comparable to one where there can never be two suns in the sky. Japan and Qing China would constantly vie with each other for domination in the Far Eastern region.”
He commended this official from the early 20th century for his judgement and foresight, because the emergence of a powerful China would be highly disadvantageous for Japan, which intended to “expand and develop outwards”. Evidently, in the eyes of Japanese strategists from the early modern period to more recent times, there had always been a huge market for the idea that “there can never be two suns in the sky”.
In addition, that certain political figures and mass media in Japan are obsessed about the topic of the rise of China also has to do with Tokyo’s habitual tendency to create a sense of crisis. Particularly notably, this happens at a time when the Japanese domestic sentiments are shifting towards “general conservatisation”, marked by efforts to break free from the shackles of the postwar peace constitution as soon as possible. China’s rise has been played up as ammo for those who harp on the Chinese threat, even serving as an important basis for the necessity for Japan to beef up its armament and revise its constitution to dispatch troops.
If we were to earnestly trace the history of China-Japan relations after normalisation in 1972, we can easily identify the turning point at which Tokyo began to ramp up its opposition against Beijing markedly. That was the year 1996...
The underlying logic and goal parallel those of other bogeymen bandied about in Japan at different times since the end of WWII. There were the likes of, for example, the threat of the Soviet Union, and then the North Korean nuclear threat — even though the famous right-wing politician Shintaro Ishihara had given his derisive take on it during a current affairs TV programme, saying that even if Pyongyang really possessed a nuclear bomb, it would at most be the size of a tin can.
Turning point a redefinition of the US-Japan Security Treaty
If we were to earnestly trace the history of China-Japan relations after normalisation in 1972, we can easily identify the turning point at which Tokyo began to ramp up its opposition against Beijing markedly. That was the year 1996, when US President Bill Clinton and the Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto redefined the US-Japan Security Treaty. The shift of the target of this bilateral security alliance from the Soviet Union to Beijing was established at that time.
At around the same juncture, Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs also took the stance of not recognising there being any tacit agreement to “shelve disputes” on China-Japan territorial issues — a move that was reported by the Japanese media then only within a hardly noticeable, minuscule printed space.
One thing is clear when the whole matter is viewed in the light of these facts. After the Cold War ended, as Japan — with the White House’s approval — turned its focus from its dispute with Russia over the “northern territories” to dispute over the “southern territories” (what Japan calls the Senkaku Islands, and is known to China as “the Diaoyudao and affiliated islands”), and openly expressed an unusual level of concern and interest over the Taiwan Strait situation on its “peripheries”, it was surely making adjustments to its domestic and international strategies with relevant calculations in mind.
Presently, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s new cabinet is further demonstrating a staunchly hawkish stance predicated on the “[Shinzo] Abe-[Taro] Aso establishment”. We may say this is but an upgraded version of the 1996 redefinition of the US-Japan security alliance.
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