It was supposedly a quiet conversation that kicked off a diplomatic thaw.

On the sidelines of the 2017 Asia Pacific Economic Corporation meeting in Da Nang, Vietnam, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe spoke with Chinese President Xi Jinping, sparking hopes of an improved relationship for one of the continent’s deepest rivalries. “At the end of the meeting, President Xi said this is a meeting that marks a fresh start of relations between Japan and China,” Abe told reporters. “I totally feel the same way.”

The longtime competitors have undergone a diplomatic thaw of sorts, reaffirming economic and political ties in the shadow of a protectionist America and high politics on the Korean peninsula. Relations between Japan and China are usually lukewarm at the best of times, however, and the two nations face a rapprochement weighed down heavily by history and ongoing territorial disputes.

National memory

In July 1937, Imperial Japan began its full-scale invasion of China, igniting an eight-year war that would only end with Japan’s surrender in World War II. By the first week of December 1937, Japan’s military reached China’s capital in Nanjing and, following a two-week siege, Nanjing’s defenses collapsed. Emboldened by their victory, the occupying Japanese began a campaign of terror that would result in the death of tens to hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians.

While the Nanjing Massacre – often referred to as the ‘Rape of Nanking’ – has become the defining atrocity of Japan’s 1937 invasion, many of China’s largest cities have their own stories to tell of human rights violations suffered under Japanese rule. Historic markers enshrining wartime martyrs dot Chinese metropoles, and national museums regularly champion China’s struggle against Japanese imperialism.

Japan and China
Hong Kong, now a special administrative region of China, was also occupied by Japan in 1941 after 18 days of intense fighting. Photo: Sam Peters/Jericho

Even China’s entertainment industry has fallen in love with the war. In 2012 alone, 200 anti-Japanese historical dramas were produced in China.

Japanese abuses often filter into the grander Chinese narrative of ‘national humiliation’, which highlights abuses by foreign powers from the conclusion of the First Opium War in 1842 to the succession of the Communists in 1949. The ‘century of humiliation’ has become the national curriculum, emphasised from the school level to raise new generations on the belief that, under the Communist Party, China’s humiliation has been overcome.

This narrative frequently bleeds into contemporary Sino-Japanese relations, with more nationalist interests in China regularly confronting Japan for its violent past and demanding recognition and atonement for crimes committed during the Second World War. While Japanese leaders have issued apologies for those crimes in the past, the Chinese government, stoked by nationalist sentiments that accompanied China’s rise, have never considered those admissions enough.

Meanwhile, an increasingly prevalent Japanese nationalism, fed both by Japan’s decline and China’s growth, has made ‘forgive and forget’ a difficult sell in Japan, and in some cases, these sentiments have been actively encouraged by Japanese politicians looking for a nationalist boost.

More than half of the current Japanese Diet, as well as Abe and a significant part of his cabinet, are affiliated with Nippon Kaigi, a conservative Japanese lobby that favours presenting Japan’s imperialism as “liberating much of East Asia from Western colonial powers” and downplaying war crimes like the Nanjing Massacre, according to a 2014 Congressional Research Service report.

While Abe has avoided vocal support for some of Nippon Kaigi’s more controversial platforms, he has championed the group’s campaign to amend Japan’s constitutional restraints on the Japanese Defense Force, earning criticism from countries historically abused by the Japanese military.

Most Japanese acknowledge atrocities like the Nanjing Massacre, but younger voters with no memory of World War II have expressed exhaustion and frustration with continued demands for Japanese apologies over a war that ended 70 years ago. Economic frustrations have also found convenient scapegoats in Japan’s ethnic Chinese population.

In light of the current diplomatic thaw, cultural impressions have somewhat improved, though they remain relatively dour. A 2017 survey conducted by Japanese think tank Genron NPO found that 80 percent of Japanese held a negative opinion of China, and 60 percent of Chinese felt the same about Japan. The survey noted that this was an improvement from the previous year.

Japan and China
Sunset over Tokyo. The city has become a major draw for Chinese tourists, with the number of visitors from China surpassing those from South Korea for the first time in 2017. Photo: Sam Peters/Jericho

In 2012, Japan decided to formally nationalise the Senkaku Islands, an islet chain in the East China Sea governed by Japan since the 1970s. Their previous owners, a wealthy family from Saitama Prefecture, sold the islands to the Japanese government for 2 billion yen – approximately US$17.5million.

The islands are central to a territorial dispute between Japan and China, who share dueling territorial claims over the islands. Taiwan also maintains a historic claim to the Senkaku Islands, called ‘Diaoyu’ in Chinese.

Japan’s claim extends only as far back as the end of the 1800s, when Japan was ceded the islands after the First Sino-Japanese War. Under the Japanese, the islands saw the establishment of a fish processing plant that, until its failure in the 1940s, provided the islands’ only modern settlement.

China’s claim, and by extension Taiwan’s, stretches back hundreds of years, with fishing records and maps identifying the Diaoyu Islands as a navigational marker and historic staging area for Chinese fishermen.

Japan’s nationalisation of the Senkaku Islands stirred protests across China, which quickly turned violent as protesters trashed Japanese stores and overturned imported Japanese cars. Bottles were thrown at the Japanese embassy in Beijing, accompanied by calls for war.

Under Xi Jinping, China has only become more aggressive in its assertions of sovereignty over the Diaoyu, with its coastguard maintaining a regular presence in nearby waters. Experts point to the Senkaku/Diaoyu territorial dispute as one catalyst for today’s frayed relations.

Japan and China
A Japanese Coastguard vessel patrols the waters off the Senkaku islands. Regular standoffs between coastguard ships and Taiwanese fishing boats have heightened tensions between Japan and China in recent months. Photo: Wikipedia Commons/Al Jazeera English

A lukewarm thaw

Together, China and Japan form one of the largest economic relationships in the world. As the respective second- and third-largest economies globally, China and Japan each recognise the other as a crucial market, with China representing the largest Japanese source of imports and exports globally. Aside from the United States and Hong Kong, Japan is also China’s single largest market.

However, Japan’s economy remains sluggish, struggling, among other problems, with an aging population. ‘Abenomics’, an economic agenda espoused by Abe, has only been a piecemeal success for some, with widening wealth gaps and a constrictive business infrastructure muddying its waters.

An export-oriented economy, Japan has largely relied on demand from markets in Asia and the West as an economic engine, making American tariffs a palpable threat to Japan’s slow recovery. In light of those tariffs, the country cannot allow stagnant diplomacy to stonewall its Chinese markets.

Japan may also have an opportunity to expand its markets via China’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) plan, a Chinese policy of massive infrastructure investments physically linking China to the rest of the world. Though Japan has its own competing investment policies, Japanese companies like Nippon Express are already taking advantage of OBOR infrastructure in places like Kazakhstan.

China is also threatened by American trade pressures, with US tariffs on steel and aluminium spiralling into a tit-for-tat trade war between the two countries. The US has long been China’s largest overseas market, and experts predict a deepening trade war could eventually sever those ties, pushing China to realign its economy with new markets.

Mending ties with Japan secures China’s second largest market, and with President Xi clearly solidifying his hold on Chinese politics earlier this year with the abolition of presidential term limits, a Xi-led détente with Japan might be more palatable domestically.

Both nations are keenly conscious of events happening between the Koreas, and a partnership between Japan and China better situates both in deciding the diplomatic outcomes on the Korean Peninsula. China, North Korea’s most prominent ally, is key to promoting denuclearisation and de-escalation after several North Korean missile tests over Japan, and China cannot afford a dispute with Japan while also trying to negotiate with the Koreas and the US.

A geopolitical thaw isn’t a guarantee for the two nations however, as both remain absolute in their territorial claims over the Senkaku Islands. Calls for Japanese militarisation meanwhile, largely framed in reference to China’s rise, leave China wary of their neighbour. The Japanese, in turn, are wary of an increasingly assertive China, but regionally and globally.

Abe, now guaranteed another term as Prime Minister with the conclusion of elections earlier this week, is reportedly planning a diplomatic visit to Beijing in October ahead of a trilateral summit with South Korea intended for the end of the year.

A late October visit would overlap with the 40th anniversary of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between China and Japan, a 1978 agreement whose signature spurred then-Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping to remark, “in these turbulent times, China needs friendship with Japan and vice versa”. For now, it appears that uneasy diplomacy will remain the course for both nations.

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