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Strained Ties between China and Japan

Authors: Lionel Beehner, and Preeti Bhattacharji
Updated: March 14, 2008
This publication is now archived.

Introduction

China, both economically and militarily, is outpacing Japan, reversing the historical pattern of the last several centuries. Tensions between the two countries date to the humiliation of China in the 1894-1895 Sino-Japanese War, and more recently Japan’s abusive conduct during the 1931-1945 occupation of China. These animosities surface in recurring cycles, often involving Chinese anger over Japan’s perceived lack of contrition for wartime crimes. But concrete territorial and economic issues also aggravate the relationship, including Japan’s close alliance with the United States, trade frictions, and ongoing disputes over ownership of various islands in the East China Sea.

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What caused the latest flare-up?

On January 30, 2008, Japan’s health minister announced that ten people had food poisoning after eating Chinese-made dumplings. The dumplings were imported by an affiliate of a Japanese company, Japan Tobacco, after being produced by a Tiayang food plant in China. Japanese investigators seized six packets of dumplings from the distributor and discovered traces of methamidophos, a potentially lethal pesticide that is banned in both Japan and, more recently, in China. They also found a suspicious hole in one of the packages. As a result, Japan Tobacco voluntarily recalled all the products that had been made in the same factory as the contaminated dumplings, and it posted an apology on its website.

Chinese investigators collected samples of food, ingredients, and packaging from the original Tiayang plant, but the samples showed no signs of the pesticide. Chinese regulatory officials also explored the factory, but they found no health or safety code violations. After their investigation, Chinese officials concluded that no manufacturing problem caused the contaminations, and also rejected the idea that the dumplings were intentionally contaminated in China. The origin of the contamination remains an unresolved source of tension between China and Japan, but officials on both sides have pledged to cooperate in the ongoing investigation.

What other issues have fueled Chinese-Japanese animosity?
  • Yasukuni Shrine: From 2001 to 2006, China bristled when former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi made his annual pilgrimage to Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine to Japan's war dead, which includes the remains of convicted war criminals enshrined in a secret ceremony in the 1970s. Japan’s current prime minister, Yasuo Fukuda, has not made an official visit to the controversial site.
  • UN Security Council: China has sought to block Japan’s bid for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. In April 2005, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao told reporters on a trip to India, “Only a country that respects history, takes responsibility for history, and wins over the trust of peoples in Asia and the world at large can take greater responsibilities in the international community.”
  • Taiwan: On February 19, 2005, Japan and the United States issued a joint agreement—the first of its kind—which said the status of Taiwan was a matter of mutual concern. Beijing considers Taiwan a renegade territory and objects to outside interference in what it views as a domestic matter.
  • East China Sea: On April 13, 2005, Japan gave the go-ahead on a $1 billion project to drill for oil and gas in a disputed stretch of water west of Okinawa that both countries claim as their exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang called Japan’s decision “a serious provocation.” Japan, in response, claims China has repeatedly violated its EEZ around the Ryukyu Islands. In 2003, China began drilling in the Chunxiao and Duangqiao gas fields, which extend into territory claimed by Japan. According to Eric Heginbotham of the RAND corporation, Beijing offered to negotiate the joint exploitation of adjoining oil and gas fields, but Tokyo declined.
Has the relationship moved beyond the animosities of World War II?

Somewhat. On the one hand, economic ties have flourished. Beginning from practically zero as China opened in the early 1980s, trade between the two powers has exploded, reaching $207 billion in 2006. In 2004, in fact, China surpassed the United States to become Japan's largest trading partner.

But wartime issues continue to surface. In April 2005, Tokyo's Ministry of Education, traditionally a conservative body, approved a history textbook that many non-Japanese historians criticise as a soft-pedaling of Japanese wartime atrocities. Among the events relegated to little or no mention in the new texts are the 1937 Nanking Massacre, the Japanese Army’s use of slave labor, and programs that forced females in occupied countries to act as so-called comfort women—a euphemism for prostitutes—for Japanese troops. After the textbook’s approval, thousands of Chinese demonstrators poured into the streets of Beijing, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and other cities, pelting Japanese offices and restaurants with rocks and eggs in the largest anti-Japanese protests in China since the two countries normalized relations in 1972. Protesters also called for a boycott of Japanese goods.

Japan’s statements of wartime regret are “nothing compared to what Germany's done in Europe. It's like a German leader apologizing for World War II, and then going and visiting an S.S. museum.” —Eric Heginbotham, RAND Corporation

There is no evidence the Chinese government organized the protests. On the other hand, the fact that control-conscious Chinese authorities allowed the protests to occur indicates to some experts that the rallies had the tacit approval of the Communist leadership. Ian Buruma, an author and Bard College professor who has written extensively about Asia, suggested in the Financial Times that sometimes the Chinese “authorities deliberately inflame anti-Japanese passions to deflect attention from their own shortcomings.” But other experts argue that, faced with popular anti-Japanese protests, the government may have felt it had no choice but to allow them to go forward. They observe that the government arrested some of the most violent protestors and made efforts to contain the demonstrations.

Tomohiko Taniguchi, a Japanese scholar, says the Chinese overreacted; only one Japanese junior high school adopted the textbook, he says. Heginbotham says that's not the point. While many countries shy away from critical examination of national misdeeds, Japanese textbooks, he says, are particularly prone to put the most positive—and historically questionable—spin on Japanese history. The textbook at the center of the controversy, and others as well, he says, represents the Japanese troops who occupied China as if they “were liberating Asia from Western colonialism.”

Since 1972, Japan has made apologies and issued expressions of regret for its World War II conduct, including statements from past prime ministers and the emperor. China, however, has never fully accepted this contrition because Japan’s words have conflicted with their deeds, according to Heginbotham. “This is nothing compared to what Germany's done in Europe,” he says. “It's like a German leader apologizing for World War II, and then going and visiting an S.S. museum.” Heginbotham notes that South Korea, which was also occupied by Japan, and other Asian nations are also concerned by Tokyo’s apparent sugarcoating of its wartime record.

“There's a growing sense in Japan that they've apologized enough [for the past] and that it's time to get on with life,” says Alan D. Romberg, distinguished fellow at the Henry L. Stimson Center's East Asia program. He notes that Chinese textbooks have their share of historical distortions. Japan, for its part, has refused to revise or remove the book and has asked for a formal apology from Beijing for the protests and compensation for damage.

What does their dispute mean for U.S. foreign policy in the region?

The U.S.-Japan alliance remains strong, experts say. China views this partnership with increasing suspicion, particularly Washington and Tokyo’s decision to develop a joint missile defense system in 2004. “In theory, the shield is aimed at North Korea, but in practice, and in the eyes of the Chinese, it is aimed at China,” Taniguchi says. Still, the United States wants to minimize regional tensions. “It's not in the U.S. interest to have China and Japan at each other’s throats,” Romberg says. “From a political, economic, and security point of view, it's in our interest that they get along.” The Chinese-Japanese rift also tends to push South Korea closer to China, experts say. The two countries have found common cause on a number of issues, and the U.S.-South Korea relationship has been strained in recent years.

“There's a growing sense in Japan that they've apologized enough [for the past] and that it's time to get on with life.” —Alan Romberg, Henry L. Stimson Center

The United States, with naval bases in Singapore and security agreements with most of China’s neighbors, is the dominant military regional power. It is unlikely that China could push the United States out of the region in the foreseeable future, argues former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski in a  Foreign Policy article, “but even if it could, I don't think it would want to live with the consequence: a powerful, nationalistic, and nuclear-armed Japan.”

What are Japan's military ambitions?

It's unclear. Article 9 of Japan's constitution, written by U.S. occupation authorities in 1946, not only renounces war but forbids Japan from maintaining land, sea, or air forces. Still, the country has a substantial military arsenal. Japan’s annual military budget is over $40 billion, placing it among the world's largest, yet it accounts for less than 1 percent of Japan’s gross domestic product (GDP). (By comparison, U.S. defense spending is around 4 percent of GDP.) Japan maintains so-called self-defense forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, including six hundred troops on a flotilla based in the Indian Ocean to provide logistical support and fuel to U.S. forces in the region. There is growing support in Japan, including among parliamentarians, to amend Article 9, though there is no consensus about how to do so.

What is the Chinese threat as perceived by Japan?

Japan fears China will use its growing economic leverage and military prowess to throw its weight around and dominate the region. Beijing’s efforts to thwart Japan's U.N. Security Council membership bid exemplify this concern, experts say. China also continues to rapidly expand its military forces. “China is just beginning to look menacing,” says John J. Mearsheimer, who teaches international relations at the University of Chicago, pointing to what he sees as an “Asian version of the Monroe Doctrine.” Still, the Chinese economy, in per-capita terms, lags far behind Japan’s. “The Chinese threat to the United States, Japan, and the world comes from an economically faltering China, not a prosperous, self-confident China,” (PDF) wrote Masaru Tamamoto, an Asia analyst, in a 2005 article in the Far Eastern Economic Review.

What is the Japanese threat as perceived by China?

Japan does not pose a direct threat to China militarily, experts say. That said, what is seen as Japan's historical backsliding, combined with a more assertive diplomatic and military posture, worries China. Beijing is also concerned by Japan’s alliance with the United States, and particularly what it perceives as its increased meddling in China's dispute with Taiwan.

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