Still Repairing Chinese-Japanese Relations by Asger Røjle Christensen

20. Jan 2011

Yes, there has been a serious crisis recently between China and Japan.

The collision between a Chinese fishing trawler and a Japanese coastguard patrol boat close to the disputed islands, known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, prompted both countries to take drastic measures which resulted in China canceling a number of high-level ministerial meetings between the two countries. But no, this doesn’t imply that the region is on the brink of open confrontation. It doesn’t disturb the general trend towards a more pragmatic cooperative attitude from both sides.

Junichiro Koizumi held the post of Prime Minister in Japan from 2001 until 2006. During the Koizumi years, relations between the two major powers of East Asia were indeed truly paralyzed. By visiting the controversial Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo where 14 Japanese war criminals are still revered, Koizumi brought exchanges between high-level officials in the two countries to a halt for several years. At that time, the fact that the two major powers stopped communicating did indeed have serious implications for the region.

There are so many important issues that are universal in this globalized world. In order to face these issues there needs to be a dialogue in order to make things happen. That counts for environment, climate, energy, and also trade and financial matters.

The economic and political elites of both countries know this very well. For this reason, during the Koizumi years the elites in both countries were in fact united in the belief that history is important, but not so important that it be allowed to paralyze things to the extent that it ended up doing at that time.

When Koizumi resigned in 2006, therefore, one of the urgent tasks for his successor was to repair relations with China. Shinzo Abe, the new prime minister, who may have been an even bigger hawk than Koizumi, travelled to Beijing within two weeks of being appointed.

Within the next two years, Wen Jiabao, the Chinese Prime Minister, and then the president, Hu Jintao, made broadly publicized visits to Japan .

All three visits were major public relations efforts from both governments for the benefit of skeptical populations in both countries. The smiling leaders played table tennis and watched baseball together while the cameras were on, and they obviously seemed to enjoy themselves while talking positively about the bright prospects of further cooperation in the future.

Most importantly, when Wen Jiabao recognized that Japanese leaders have actually apologized profusely on several occasions for the wartime invasions and war crimes committed by the Japanese imperial army, he did it in Chinese at the Japanese parliament, while it was being broadcasted across China and hence aimed at the Chinese public. This was received very well by the Japanese public.

He had finally done on China’s behalf what the then President, Kim Dae-jung, had done on behalf of South Korea ten years earlier. It was indeed a necessary step towards a future with less historical shadows over current relations.

This kind of show from the two governments’ side towards the two populations is extremely important as it is a fact that there is strong resentment towards the other side among the general population in both countries. The elites want to get along; they want to find some kind of working relationship where Japan has a role as neither partner nor rival to the new superpower on the continent, China, but rather something in-between, namely a very important second violin in the orchestra of East Asia.

Hostility among the population is a reality in China as a consequence of history and because new generations being so deliberately reminded about that unfortunate part of the long history.

But hostility among the population is also a reality in Japan where many people still have to adjust to the fact that in contrast to a few decades ago, China is now obviously the major power of the two. There is certainly a market in Japanese bookshops for literature about all kinds of evil intentions being harbored by the Chinese leadership.

The tough and shrill Chinese reaction to some of the recent crises, specifically the crisis following the September ship collision, has made even many liberal-minded and traditionally pro-China Japanese highly irritated about the conduct and intentions of their big neighbor. The new Japanese government has been harshly criticized for being too soft on China and too soft in the arrested Chinese captain; a criticism emanated across the political board in Japan.

Whenever there is a crisis in the relations between the two countries, one tends to focus on Chinese public opinion, but maybe we should also focus a little bit on avoiding a situation whereby developments on the Japanese side increase the risk of further political tensions.

Apparently, the two governments still have the important task of convincing their own people that the other side is not that bad after all. And to some degree they have a common understanding about this, in spite of all the harsh words during the peak of any crisis.

It is worth noting that on the very first day of the anti-Japan demonstrations in China last fall, the Japanese foreign minister publicly thanked the Chinese government for deliberately avoiding even bigger and more violent demonstrations.

At the same time the business community and civil society are busily shaping a future with much more integration between the two neighboring countries than one would expect considering the frequent political crises and the general public debate in the two countries.

Companies are busily hiring the brightest young people from each other’s country; students, from China at least, are busily applying to study in Japan; and young Chinese and Japanese backpackers are filling up the cheap hotels each other’s country.

In the end, it is these developments that will change the relations between the two countries much more effectively than any political developments ever will. In the meantime, in the aftermath of the crisis late last year, the politicians in both Japan and China once more have some repair work to do.



Asger Røjle Christensen,

Journalist, Danish Broadcasting Corporation,

NIAS associate Senior Fellow