“New thinking” about the history issue: Japan’s lost chance in China?

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Author: Đỗ Thị Thủy*


China and Japan have undergone a long history of bilateral relations fraught with traumas and bitterness. The memory of Japanese aggression in China during the World War II is still haunting many hearts and minds in both countries. The unresolved history issue thus ranks very high in their bilateral agenda. Taking a retrospective look at the evolution of the history issue, it seems that the management of this issue represents the patterns of cooperation and struggle between the two East Asian powers. While many former enemies have become true friends in international relations today, this is not the case of China and Japan. The Cold War period elapsed without Sino-Japanese reconciliation as the way France and Germany did although there had been time China and Japan were ‘de facto allies’ against Soviet hegemony in East Asia. The post-Cold War period witnesses the rapid rise of China, Japan’s strive to become a “normal country”, and a tensed dispute between the two countries over the history issue. It is against this context that this study aims to examine what stays behind the history issue in China-Japan relations.

Conventional wisdom says that China has somehow used the history issue as a strategy or political tool to bash Japan. This paper does not completely refuse that logic; it, however, argues that there are deeper inner roots that make the history issue so uneasy in China-Japan relations. Buying the analogy of the lost chance argument in US-China relations during the 1947-1949 period[1] as well as taking a historical perspective, comparative analysis and theoretical approach, the paper aims to explore two central questions: i) whether Japan had lost a chance to solve its history issue with China by reviewing the three opportunities – after the second World War, the 1972-1978 period and the 2003 “new thinking”; and ii) why ‘new thinking’ could not fly either in Japan or China (the nature of the problem) as well as the implications of this ‘lost chance’ (if any) to the region.

Lost chances in the Cold War?

It should be noted that the history issue only becomes a problem in Sino-Japanese relations since the 1980s. Many, thus, wonder whether Japan had missed a chance to settle its history issue with China during the time beween 1945 and 1979. There are two occasions that received much attention: right after the Second World War (reconciliation as the way France and Germany did) and the 1972-1978 period (during their establishment of diplomatic relations and conclusion of The Treaty of Peace and Friendship.)

To begin with, reconciliation as the way France and Germany did right after the Second World War is a peace-building process that requires three conditions: i) the aggressor accepts its responsibilities and is willing to reintegrate into region; ii) the victims prepare to let go and build new relations; and iii) the international/regionalenvironment provides conditions conducive for reconciliation. While the three conditions presented in France and Germany’s post-war relations, they did not in China-Japan’s. Unlike France and Germany who generally shared ideology and Western values, and common interests (common ally – the US, common threat – the USSR and communism in Eastern Europe, and common goal – European integration), China and Japan was torn in ideological division and sharp national interests posed by domestic politics and the emerging Cold War environment in East Asia (US-USSR competition). The fact that China, although as a victor, did not have troop presence in Japan like France did in Germany and the harsh civil war between CCP and KMT in China from 1945 to 1949 also contributed to the lack of reconciliation.

From Japan’s perspective, there were little interests for it to reconcile with China and integrate into the region at that time since i) its security was guaranteed by the US-Japan security alliance, ii) it wanted to keep a low image of a pacifist country in Western model (Article No. 9 of the constitution) and iii) it clearly did not want to mention history issues as the biggest failure for the modern Japan but to place concentration on domestic consolidation and economic development which would mean that Japan preferred not to pay the huge war reparation to its victims. China was thus seen as an inadequate partner for Japan both in terms of security, economic or ideological calculations.

From China’s perspective, both the international environment and domestic politics was not favourable for reconciliation with the West in general and Japan in particular. The most profound reason was Mao’s grand plans to transform China’ state, society, and international outlook – Mao’s theory of continuous revolution in which CCP’s victory in 1949 was only the first step to transform China into a powerful country. The party’s need to enhance the inner dynamics of the Chinese revolution after its nationwide victory and anti-imperialism was deemed a good means to that end. As the result, China and U.S/Japan national interests largely contradicted with each other i.e. hegemony versus anti-imperialism. Moreover, contrary to the lost chance thesis, Chinese now available materials demonstrate that in 1949-50, Mao and the CCP leadership were unwilling to pursue Western recognition or to establish diplomatic relations with Western countries. This attitude was most clearly demonstrated by the CCP leadership’s handling of the Ward case in Shenyang or their following slogans of ‘Clean up the house before entertaining guests,’lingqi luzao’ (not recognizing any previous treaty and obligation imposed upon China or signed by any former Chinese government to make a fresh start in China’s external relations) etc.[2]

The last but not least factor was the Cold War environment. Even before CCP’s final victory, Mao had decided that it was in China’s interests to ally with the USSR. As outlined in his “On People’s Democratic Dictatorship”, China had to “lean on one side”, “cannot stand in the middle,” as well as “there is no Third Way.” Consequently, China regarded the US as its number one enemy in its struggle for the cause of anti-imperialism and prevention of outside intervention in China. As such, Japan – the U.S. closest ally in Asia had no way to accommodate China even if it really wanted to. The missed opportunity to solve the history issue in this period, like the U.S. debate of “Who lost China?” must, therefore, be regarded as a myth.[3]

However, this paper argues that there had been a lost chance or a missed opportunity for China and Japan to completely solve their history issue during 1972-1978 period. Taking into account the three above-mentioned conditions, a true reconciliation between China and Japan could have been reached during this time.

First, the 1972-1979 international/regional environments were conducive for such reconciliation. The Sino-Soviet split, culminating in their border clashes on Zhenbao islands, and the historic visit of Nixon to China in 1972 followed by the Shanghai Communicate of Sino-US rapprochement sharply changed the dynamics of the Cold War politics and marked the beginning of Sino-US collusion against the USSR. This rapprochement also opened the door for China to set up relations with the West, including Japan. Second, startled and somehow shocked by its closest ally’s accommodation toward China, Japan also tried to normalize its relations with China in 1972 and negotiated to conclude a peace treaty with China in 1978. The memory of Nanjing massacre and Japan’s invasion of China and East Asian countries were still fresh in Japanese leadership and people’s minds that would have made it easier for them to admit its guilt and apologize to East Asian countries. In fact, the then Japanese governments had rather liberal views as shown in Japanese Prime Minister Fukuda Doctrine toward Southeast Asia in 1977.[4] Third, China then, due to its apprehension of the Soviet threat and Soviet expansionism, its deteriorating relations with other communist states like Vietnam and Albania as well as the fear of being abandoned by the US and the West who were in the pivot position in the power triangle during the 1970s, might be more willing to compromise on the history issue. China was also in dire need of Western technology and financial assistance for its reforms of which Japan was undoubtedly of a great source. Long before the re-establishment of Sino-Japanese diplomatic ties, Chinese leaders often mentioned three things when meeting Japanese friends: “i) the Japanese are a great people; ii) the responsibility for World War II rests with a small number of militarists, not with the Japanese people, who were also a victim, iii) since Japan had apologized for what it had done in the past, China was willing to let bygones be bygones, and that the two countries should look to the future.”[5] It was Prime Minister Zhou Enlai who said emphatically that ‘China and Japan should cooperate to make Asia a better place and to bring strength to Asia. To that end, he said, China was going to forget its grudge against Japan.’[6]

It should also be noted that during the 4-year negotiation of the peace treaty, the issue China was most concerned of was the “anti-Soviet hegemony” and economic cooperation clauses. China did not mention anything about the history issue or Japan’s responsibilities. Chinese Deputy Prime Minister Deng Xiaoping traveled to Japan in person to exchange the ratification instruments and President Hua Quofeng said: “We firmly support the Japanese people in their just struggle to recover their four northern islands. The people of China and Japan should live in friendship for countless generations.”[7] Even when China’s trade with Japan was insignificant and other bilateral exchanges between the two societies were limited at the early years of normalization, ‘close to 80 percent of Japanese expressed friendly feelings toward Chinese, on par with the United States, while the Chinese held up Japan as a model of modernization that could also offer advanced technology, capital and management know-how.’[8]

Therefore, there is nothing implausible to conclude that should Japan dare to take the history issue into the negotiations of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship with China, there might have been a great opportunity that the Chinese would compromise or at least agree on some framework to tackle the problem. Unfortunately, the opportunity was missed and as we all know, with the weakening of progressive forces to exert adequate political pressure on the Japanese government and the appearance of the right-wing movement in Japan’s politics since the 1980s who tended to re-write the memory of Japan’s militarism[9] and the rise of nationalistic sentiment in China, history has become a critical problem in Sino-Japanese relations. The first ‘mind-washing’ text-book was published in 1982, followed by series of Japanese leaders’ visits to the Yashukuni Shrine in which 14 Japanese class-A war criminals in the Second World War are honored among the country’s war dead sparked off a tensed debate between the two countries regarding the description of history.

‘New thinking’ after the Cold War: why couldn’t it fly either in China or Japan?

“The past, if not forgotten, will be the guide for the future.”

“Take history as a mirror and face the future.”

“When will Japan ever apologize?”

“We want to forget; they want to remember”

“How many times must we apologize before the Chinese forgive us?”

That is just to quote contradicting stances of China and Japan in their debate about the history issue since the 1980s. The end of the Cold War, and deeper economic interdependence did not facilitate better understanding between two countries. The last decade of the twentieth century witnessed a rapidly rising China and a more assertive Japan that make East Asia jump in a situation of no previous precedent – China and Japan are both powerful powers at the same time. Many, therefore, argue that China would like to somehow use the history issue to bash Japan and prevent Japan from turning into a normal country. However, to be fair, during the 1990s both sides were to be blamed for failing to overcome the distrust of China people toward Japan. During 1991-1995, Japan was to blame more for neglecting the sensitivity of Chinese people. Although Japan has apologized many times to many East Asian countries, including China, it refuses to do so to China in formal written form. This, together with frequent denials of Japan’s aggressive history and the “slips of the tongue” by many of its high-ranking officials, of course, furthers the Chinese mistrust in Japan. Japanese leadership also inadequately responded to Chinese 1998-2000 ‘smiling diplomacy’ to seek diplomatic accommodation with China. Many people thus believed that Japan had somehow twice missed opportunities to rid itself of historical burdens during this period: once was in 1995, the fiftieth anniversary of World War II when all East Asian countries expected a resolution about history issue from Japan and the second chance was President Jiang Zemin’s 1998 visit to Japan. A truly sincere apology toward East Asian countries and China in these two opportunities would have settled the problem and created prospects to improve their bilateral relations but in the end it was rejected by Japan.[10]

In the later period, the Chinese leadership also had to share much responsibility for arousing and tolerating the nationalistic and anti-Japanese sentiment among Chinese mass. The danger is that nationalism, once aroused, will be hard to stamp out. One of the significant changes in this historical debate is the increasing involvement of nationalistic public opinion in both countries which, to some extent, went beyond control of the government. For example, “when Chinese leadership proposed the ‘smiling diplomacy’ and took a new look at the importance of Japan for China’s continued economic growth, and its balance in great power relations and regionalism, they discovered that they did not know how to reverse this public negativity and its repercussions in Japan.”[11] Even Premier Zhu Rongji was criticized and even named a ‘traitor’ for his message that China highly appreciated Japan’s ODA and that present day Japanese should not bear responsibility for the militarism and war against China in his ‘friendship tour’ to Japan in 2000.[12] It was in this context of ultra-nationalism in China that the ‘New Thinking’ appeared.  

The ‘New Thinking’ was introduced after an emotional event – the Zhao Wei incident in 2002 whereby China’s famous actress Zhao Wei was strongly criticized as “traitor” for wearing a short dress with a large Imperial Japanese flag imprinted upon it. Public anger and anti-Japanese sentiment rose after the incident led many Chinese scholars and moderates feared of an ultra-nationalism that might not be good for China. At the forefront of this movement was Ma Licheng, a noted editorial writer for the People’s Daily, the paper of the Chinese Communist Party. In December 2002, right after the 16th CCP Congress that marked China’s leadership transition, Ma published an article in an influential journal, Strategy and Management titled “New Thinking on Sino-Japanese Relations – Worries of the Chinese and Japanese people.” In this essay, Ma criticized what he saw as China’s strong nationalist anti-Japanese sentiment, and said he believed the issue of getting Japan to “apologize” for its wartime aggression had already been resolved and called for “new thinking” (xin siwei) in China’s Japan policy.[13] New thinking, in his view, implied that “China should stop putting so much weight on “historical issues”, and drop its insistence that Japan come clean with an apology for its aggressive wars against China. He pointed out that Japanese leaders have apologized in various forms. Japan is, after all, a much-reformed society in the sense that pacifism, not the right-wing, is the mainstream in Japan’s politics today. The “burden of history” has consumed too much positive energy, they argue, proposing instead a “let-go-of-the-past” approach and a focus on a future-oriented partnership.”[14]

As expected, Ma’s essay has drawn strong criticism from the general public, but many in the Chinese media, which usually follow the party line closely, have expressed support for his view. Among them, the essay by Shi Yinhong of the Center for American Studies at the People’s University of China titled “Japan-China Rapprochement and Diplomatic Revolution” that appeared in the latest issue of Strategy and Management has attracted great attention. In fact, Shi approached the problem from a rather different perspective from Ma’s. Taking a realist and geo-political perspective, he argued that as close neighbors in East Asia, mutual hatred and antagonist sentiments in the two nations could aggravate anti-Chinese sentiments and xenophobia in Japan and lead to a vicious circle that potentially dangers China. By enhancing relations with Japan, China can improve its security environment and its diplomatic position. Furthermore, viewing the US as an ‘unprecedented hegemon’ that may obstruct China’s rise, Shi proposed that China should seek rapprochement with Japan to balance against the US (‘lianRi kangMei’ in Chinese). He specifically suggests that China put issues concerning history on the backburner and express understanding of Japan’s military build-up, welcoming it to become a normal power as well as actively supporting Tokyo’s bid to become a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.[15]

Shi Yinhong and Ma Licheng’s ideas was a breakthrough in China’s thinking about its relations with Japan, reflecting, to some extent, the changing of the guard in the party leadership as well as China’s increasing confidence in national strength and the accompanying increase in the confidence of its people. In fact, Ma maintains that when discussing the issue of Japan’s responsibility for its wartime deeds, China should show its caliber as a victor in World War II. Shi, too, proposes that China actively pursue a “diplomatic revolution” with the confidence of a major world power.[16]

Unfortunately, this ‘new thinking’ could not fly either in China or Japan and its introducers had to suffer from harsh criticism, especially from the netizents. Ma and Shi were named ‘traitors’ (‘Hanjian’ or ‘maiguozei’ in Chinese) and even received death threats. In the end, Ma had to ask for an early retirement in the People’s Daily and moved to Hong Kong. The following years witnessed the worst period in China-Japan post normalization history with Chinese demonstrators boycotted Japanese goods, ‘chanted anti-Japanese slogans, smashed Japanese businesses, and even physically abused Japanese soccer players in Beijing.’[17] One may raise a question why the ‘New Thinking’ failed?

First, it could be explained that the new thinking came not in a right time – after an emotional event that aroused the nationalistic and anti-Japanese sentiment of the Chinese people. Ma and Shi argued that Japan had done enough for being let-go. The problem, however, is that as long as Chinese leadership and its people do not believe that Japan has made a truly sincere apology, this new thinking cannot fly. Other scholars such as Bai Jingfan and Feng Zhaokui dismissed Ma and Shi’s ideas because the history question is ‘difficult, complex, emotional and long-term’ that is not easily forgotten and the feelings of hatred (chouhen) are deep-rooted (shengen digu).[18] Critics of new thinking argued that ‘a nation that fails to acknowledge its darkest chapter 60 years after the war’s end is a nation that cannot be trusted. A French-German reconciliation model can work for China and Japan only if the Japanese deal with their past as thoroughly in their soul-searching as the Germans did. And they warn that history, if forgotten, is doomed to repeat itself.’[19]

Second, the “new thinking” proponents challenge the Chinese public to examine its own ultra-nationalistic bias against Japan. They point out that extreme views, such as degrading anti-Japanese language used in internet chat groups, are unhealthy and if unchecked, may become the start of fascism in the name of patriotism that may damage China’s image as a peacefully emerging great power. [20] But opponents “see these charges as an exaggeration of isolated phenomena that are unrepresentative of Chinese nationalism today. In fact, they emphasize the opposite of the case: China is lacking a good dose of nationalism as a rising power and that China is too accommodating in its foreign relations for the sake of maintaining its ‘peaceful development’ image.”[21]

Third, the new thinking promoters insist that a rapprochement with Japan was on China’s own national interests. Economically, hostility, they warn, will cost China’s modernization program dearly, given the size of the Sino-Japanese bilateral trade. Politically, poor relations may also push Japan further to the U.S. side. The best strategy is, therefore, to treat Japan as a “normal state”, taking a more relaxed view of Tokyo’s gradual military expansion given Japan’s peaceful track-record in the past half century, and seeking a stronger partnership with Japan to deepen economic integration and counter American political dominance in East Asia.[22] The rival camp dismisses such opinions as wishful thinking. Citing classical Chinese as well as Western realist theory, they argued that national interests are not only based on economic indicators which advocated for China’s important economic ties with Japan; prestige, respect and dignity are all indispensable parts of China’s rising national power.[23] In term of security concerns, they also dismissed the idea that China and Japan were on the same boat against the US. Up till now, Japan still eyes its relations with the US as vital for its foreign policy and security. In strategic terms, Japan needs to count on American power to balance China’s influence. Therefore, in the foreseeable future, no matter how the Sino-Japanese relations change, the relationship between Japan and the US is unlikely to weaken. That is to say, Japan will never improve its ties with China at the expense of those with the US.[24]

Fourth, the Japanese side also contributed to the failure of this new thinking. Unfortunately, the Japanese government failed to respond to China’s domestic debate. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi ‘continued to ignore Chinese sensitivities by continuously paying visits to the Yasukuni Shrine. Rather than making some goodwill gestures to China or ceasing visits to the Shrine, Japan cut the floor out from under Chinese advocates of new thinking, who were already under fierce pressure from nationalists at home.’[25] Furthermore, unlike in China, there had been no critical debate among Japanese scholars and public opinion about Chinese new thinking. In fact, Japanese press in general (and conservatives in particular) had celebrated the new thinking from China as a vindication of the Japanese stance in the bilateral disputes, claiming it is up to China ‘to right its own wrongs.’[26] Rather than responding to Beijing’s conciliatory gestures, Koizumi continued his Yasukuni pilgrimage. And those who called for closer ties with China have been under attack. Japanese Foreign Ministry officials in charge of Japan’s China policy, labeled as the “pro-China school”, were targeted by a vicious smear campaign and China was regarded as a threat equivalent to North Korea.[27]

It would be thus concluded that the new thinking movement cannot be regarded as a missed opportunity. Both the time, public opinion and political will in both countries were not ready for such a radical change in their bilateral relationship. However, while not openly endorsing the new thinking, the new Chinese leadership quietly watched and experimented cetain ideas of ‘New Thinking’ in their Japan policy. Unlike their predecessors, both Hu and Wen refrained from publicly criticizing Koizumi’s repeated Yasukuni pilgrimage. Up to the spring of 2004, Beijing had hoped to change Koizumi’s mind through both formal and informal channels so that the interrupted mutual visits at the top level could resume. The PRC also tried to limit the scope of a growing resentment among ordinary Chinese toward Japan on issues ranging from Yasukuni visits, war reparations and chemical weapons left behind by the Japanese army at the end of World War II that continue to cause casualties today.[28]

Implications and future prospects

The failure of this new thinking led Sino-Japan relations into the worst period since their normalization. The non-compromising policy of the Koizumi government on textbook and Yashukuni issues as well as rising domestic pressures in China plunged their “economic hot, political cool” situation to even an “ice period,” culminating in the cancellation of the meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi by Chinese Deputy Prime Minister Wu Yi in May 2005. This coldness even spreads from bilateral ties to multilateral mechanisms, placing barriers for the institution-building process in East Asia. For example, during the first East Asian Summit (EAS) in Kuala Lumpur in 2005, China had cancelled thetraditional Japan-China-South Korea meeting on the sidelines of the ASEAN+3 meeting (which preceded the EAS), causing deadlocks to the East Asian integration. The prospect of an East Asian Community with continued Sino-Japanese tensions, thus, remains gloomed.

Therefore, many Western and Japanese watchers have blamed Beijing for ‘largely, if not entirely, responsible for the deteriorating state of the Sino-Japanese political relationship. Some even attribute the rising negative attitude of the Japanese toward China as a consequence of the Chinese behavior.’[29] However, a closer look at China’s Japan policy in the past few years reveals some possible change. Leadership transitions in the two countries have usually been opportunities to adjust policies toward other country. The new leadership under President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao has tried to create a constructive environment for Sino-Japanese relations. Meanwhile, since taking power in 2006, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinto Abe as a nationalist who supports visits to Yasukuni shrine and the use of revisionist school textbooks that cast Japan’s wartime conduct in a positive light strangely worked hard to thaw the seemingly frozen relationship. It should be noted that Mr. Abe chose China for his first foreign visit as Japanese Prime Minister – the first such visit between the two countries since 2001 and left his possible visit to the Yashukuni shrine pending. His good will and restraints were responded by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s 2007 visit to Japan, the first in 7 years by a Chinese leader during which he recalled many remarks that reflected the 2003 ‘new thinking’, for examples, emphasizing Sino-Japan traditional friendship, appreciating apologies and remorse Japan has so far made to its WWII victims, acknowledging Japan’s financial assistance to China etc.[30] In fact, due to strategic concerns of the negative impacts of continued Sino-Japan frictions such as the worsening of China’s image in Japan’s society, enhanced US-Japan security alliance, Japan’s moves toward assertiveness and normalization, Sino-Japanese competition over Southeast Asia etc, China leaders have made significant shifts in its policy toward Japan to reverse possible negative surrounding improvement for its economic development. Instead of overemphasizing on the motto “the past, if not forgotten, will be the guide for the future,” or its prudent “tingqiyan, guanqixing” policy (first hear what Japan says and see what Japan does, then act),[31]Chinese leaders have been more active to turn to the principle of “taking history as a mirror and looking forward to the future” or quoted from Mr. Wen’s speech to the Japanese Diet “to reflect on history is not to dwell on hard feelings, but to remember and learn from the past to open a better future”[32] so as to ensure the development of a long-standing friendship between the two countries. This implies a significant change in China’s Japan policy, highlighting a more pragmatic attitude toward the history issue, as well as its sincere desire to look into the future. This new attitude influences China’s Japan policy, and if it receives positive responses from Japan, both countries may transcend history and embark on reconciliation as France and Germany did.

However, there will still be a long way to that end. Considering the complexity of Sino-Japan relations, surpassing mistrusts of each other is undoubtedly not easy. So far, the so-called historical problems between the two countries are not only a political but also a social issue. From the political perspective, undoubtedly the “history issue” will continue to be a useful tool for China’s leadership to maintain its legitimacy, to balance against the US presence in the region as well as to face a more assertive Japan that may harm China’s interests in its surrounding areas such as Taiwan, Korean peninsula, and ASEAN. The rapid rise of China and the right-wing movement in Japan will make it hard for Japanese leadership to ‘subdue’ or compromise more with China on this very emotionally nationalistic problem among others.

From the social perspective, it is clear that public opinion in the two countries has increasingly affected their governments’ policy toward each other. Nationalism is a good means for regime legitimacy but it is also a double-edged knife. Using it is like riding a tiger – once on its back, it is difficult to step down. Despite strong economic interdependence and increasingly cultural and social exchanges in every aspects of life between the two peoples, the image of each other unceasingly worsens. Japan has been among China’s top trading partners, as well as ODA and FDI suppliers for most of the last 20 years but the “friendly feelings” indicator, conducted annually by the Japanese Prime Minister’s Office, now shows ‘close to 60 percent of Japanese do not feel friendly toward China.’[33] Similarly, numerous opinion polls in China also indicate ‘most Chinese do not have a positive image of Japan.’[34] This defies the conventional liberal belief that economic, social and cultural interdependence will lead to better understanding between societies and also the biggest challenge that the two governments have to face if they really want to obtain a true reconciliation. The fact that Mr. Wen, during his visit to Japan, spent his remarkable amount of time to address the Japanese public shows that the two countries’ leadership clearly understand how important it is to change their peoples’ images in each other.

Nevertheless, up till now economic interdependence and strategic restraints have prevented the historical tensions from leading China and Japan to a total break-up. China and Japan well understand that they are very important to each other and that without their coordination and leadership, East Asian regionalism could not witness any substantiate step forward. Peter Hays Gries has precisely described the acrimony between China and Japan as a ‘real check on the development of an Asian regionalism that could buffer the US power.’[35]Noticeably, in 2009, China, Japan and South Korea agreed to resume their trilateral summit meetings and turned it into an annual consultation mechanism to deal with problems in the trilateral relations amid the global financial crisis. This is a big advance in Northeast Asian multilateralism. The recently introduced initiative by former Japanese Prime Minister Hatoyama about “an East Asian Community” sparked off hope for wider regional integration.

Therefore, there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic about a rapprochement and eventual reconciliation between the two countries. However, it could only be reached by the efforts of both countries and in a simultaneous manner. For its part, Japan, as the invader, must face the history sincerely and refrain from touching the sensitivity of the issue i.e. Yashukuni visits.[36] Meanwhile, China, its past victim, should learn to trust Japan, and get rid of its shadow. The lesson of Japan – South Korea reconciliation may be a good example.[37]

Moreover, a network of capable individuals must be developed and set up at all levels. At present, exchanges at three levels can be developed: i) the governmental channel, i.e. exchanges between political leaders including summit talks to prevent further misperception or to avoid a China-US-Japan ‘security dilemma’; ii) the grassroots’ level that can lay down the foundations for international relationship, through people to people exchanges, regional, business and student exchanges; and iii) the level of intellectuals who can influence policy-making processes. Today, the intellectual level, called ‘track two’ that lies between the governmental level and the grassroots level  affecting both levels, is widely noticed for its effectiveness. Efforts should be made to widen intellectual communication channels in both countries.[38]


China and Japan’s historical bitterness seems like that between France and Germany but unfortunately, more than 50 years after Franco-German reconciliation, the Sino-Japanese history issue has not been settled and even sometimes put their bilateral relations to the deadlocks. Reviewing the history of the issue since the end of the Second World War to present, this paper has explained why China and Japan has not reached such true reconciliation. The answers are diverse, ranging from sharp different ideology and national interests, the regional environment, traditional skepticism and competition between China and Japan, public opinion and domestic politics but the most important point this paper would like to emphasize is that the two countries, especially Japan, as the aggressor, had missed opportunities to get rid of the problem, especially during the 1972-1979 period. If Japan had taken this chance or later on in 1995 and 1998 to make formal whole-hearted charm offensive toward China and East Asian countries like the way Germany did to France and European countries, the history burdens might not be that tensed as today.

The chance once missed will be hard to reach again. And any opportunity, if to be taken, could not be made by only one side. Shi Yinhong and Ma Licheng 2003 ‘new thinking’ recommendations could not take off because it was one-sided effort and did not come at the right moment, and even bore some wishful thinking. As long as mistrusts against other intentions and sincerity lingers, any new thinking regarding the history issue will be extremely hard to stipulate either in China or Japan.

However, the fortunate thing is that both countries’ leadership is well aware of their mutual significance to each other and to the region. The history issue, tensed though, will not be likely to culminate in a break-up of bilateral relations. Recent moves from both Chinese and Japanese leadership hint steps toward deeper mutual understanding. Taking into account the three conditions for a Franco-German like reconciliation, namely the favorable international environment, the aggressor’s effort and the victim’s understanding to ‘let the bygones be bygones,’ we may be witnessing a possible ‘new thinking’ that may eventually lead to such a reconciliation. The international and regional environment is conducive to it because only when China and Japan manage to overcome the past could the region obtain a true security community. Nevertheless, to quote a popular saying “Rome was not built in a day and goodwill cannot be based on wishful thinking.” Much will depend on whether China and Japan really want to take the chance or just let it be, frustratingly, another missed opportunity.


Source: International Studies, No. 23 (December – 2010)

* Lecturer, Faculty of International Politics and Diplomacy, Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam.

[1] The lost chance thesis argues that the US had missed an opportunity to accommodate China during 1947-1949 period. This argument based on two assumption: i) that the US could have prevented Mao’s victory over Jiang’s Guomingtang (GMT) had it support Jiang’s regime more vigorously and ii) that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) earnestly sought U.S. recognition to expedite their country’s postwar economic reconstruction given that the relationship between the CCP and USSR was vulnerable because of Moscow’s failure to offer sufficient support to the Communists during the Civil War. Consequently, they concluded that it was Washington’s short-sightedness, its anti-Communist and pro-GMT policy that drove CCP into Soviet embrace and forced it to treat the US as an enemy. For more information, see “Symposium: Rethinking the Lost Chance in China,” Diplomatic History, Volume 21, Issue 1, Winter 1997: 77–86.

[2] See Sheng, Michael M. 1993. “America’s Lost Chance in China? A Reappraisal of Chinese Communist Policy Toward the United States Before 1945.” The Australian Journal of Chinese Affairs, No. 29 (Jan.), pp. 135-157 and Chen, Jian, 2001. Mao’s China and the Cold War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

[3] Ibid.

[4] According to this doctrine, “Japan, a country committed to peace, would never become a military power and that Japan would build up relationship of mutual confidence and trust with Southeast Asian countries in wide-ranging fields, and that Japan would cooperate positively with ASEAN and its member countries in their own efforts, as an equal partner.” See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fukuda_Doctrine.

[5] Zhang, 2004, Sino-Japanese relations at the turn of the century (1992 to 2001), Havard University Asia Center,  p. 240.

[6] See Lam, Peng Er, ed. 2006. Japan’s relations with China – facing a rising power. London and New York: Routledge Taylor and Francis Group.

[7] Lee, Chae-Jin. 1979. “The making of the Sino-Japanese Peace and Friendship Treaty.” Pacific Affairs, Vol. 52, No. 3 (Autumn 1979: 420-445).

[8]Jiang, Wenran. 2005. China’s “New Thinking” on Japan. Article written on 2/11/2005, accessed at http://www.asianresearch.org/articles/2503.html

[9] In November 1982, Nakasone Yasuhiro rose to become Prime Minster as a vigorous anti-communist politician and proponent of nationalist reform of education and the “reconstruction of Japanese identity.” Projecting himself as the Japanese counterpart of U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of Britain, he promoted a neoconservative agenda. For more on this point, see Yoshiko Nazaki and Mark Selden, “Japanese Textbook Controversies, Nationalism, and Historical Memory: Intra- and Inter-national Conflicts, The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus, available at http://japanfocus.org/-Mark-Selden/3173.

[10] Zhang, op cit.

[11] Rozman, Gilbert. 2002. “China’s changing images of Japan, 1989-2001: the struggle to balance partnership and rivalry.” International Relations of the Asia-Pacific, Vol. 2: 95-129.

[12] Ibid.

[13] See Kwan, Chi Hung, 2003, China‘s Confidence in its “New Thinking on Sino-Japanese Relations.” Appeared in Japanese in the March 2003 issue of Bungei Shunju and the March 2003 issue of Chuo Koron.

[14] Jiang, op cit.

[15] For more information on Ma and Shi’s New Thinking, see Kwan, op cit. and Gries, Peter Hay. 2005. “China’s ‘New Thinking’ on Japan.” China Quarterly, pp 831-850.

[16] See Kwan, op cit.

[17]Li, Mingjiang. “Wen’s Japan visit: Possible ‘new thinking’.” 20/04/07. RSIS Commentaries.

[18] Gries, op cit, p. 838.

[19] Jiang, op cit.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Roy, Denny. 2005. “The sources and limits of Sino-Japanese tensions.” Survival 47, No. 2, Summer, pp. 191-214.

[23] Jiang, op cit.

[24] http://english.people.com.cn/200306/22/eng20030622_118694.shtml

[25]Mooney, Paul.  “Internet Fans Flames of Chinese Nationalism. Beijing faces dilemma as anti-Japanese campaign in cyberspace hits the streets.” YaleGlobal, 4 April 2005, available at http://yaleglobal.yale.edu/display.article?id=5516

[26] Ibid


[28] Jiang, op cit.

[29] See Jiang, op cit.

[30] See Li, op cit.

[31] Wang, op cit.

[32] http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/6551029.stm

[33] Jang, op cit.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Samuels, Richard J. “Japan’s Goldilocks Strategy.” The Washington Quarterly, Autumn 2006, p. 121.

[36] According to a 2007 survey, an overwhelming 82% of Japanese said their Prime Minister should not visit the Yashukuni, while only 10% support continued homage. See Jiang, 2007.

[37] The longtime mutual differences regarding history between Japan and South Korea were put to rest by the then President Kim Dae Jung’s visit to Japan in 1998. The relationship between the two countries has since improved rapidly, as was seen by their co-hosting of the 2002 World Cup finals. The reconciliation was realized not just because Kim Dae Jung happened to have sympathy toward Japan, but also because South Korean people showed understanding toward this policy. See more in Kwan, op cit.

[38] Lam, op cit., p. 34.