Academic journal article China Perspectives

Forty Years in Paradox: Post-Normalisation Sino-Japanese Relations

Academic journal article China Perspectives

Forty Years in Paradox: Post-Normalisation Sino-Japanese Relations

Article excerpt

Neighbouring countries with long-standing, rich historical and cultural connections, China and Japan fought two full-scale wars in modern times, first in 1894-1895 and later in 1937-1945 (though some historians date the onset of the second conflict as early as 1931). These wars, especially the second one, leftimmense physical and psychological trauma on both sides. After World War II, China and Japan allied themselves with the Soviet Union and United States respectively, thus acting as strategic adversaries for the initial two decades of the Cold War until diplomatic normalisation in 1972. This complex history set the stage for an extremely delicate bilateral relationship. Each country has treated the other as one of its most significant others, and over time their mutual attitudes have oscillated between emulation, envy, competition, and even hatred. As a result, in the 40 years since normalisation, Sino-Japanese relations have experienced a number of dramatic twists and turns, from the "honeymoon" of the 1970s, to renewed friction in the 1980s, and a period of volatility and downward spiral beginning from the mid-1990s. Entering the 2010s, in the context of repeated escalations of offshore islands disputes, their relationship has sunk to its lowest point since 1972.

Post-normalisation Sino-Japanese relations have not only followed a tortuous trajectory, but have also been fraught with contradictions. Students of this relationship are particularly puzzled by three outstanding paradoxes. First, why have China and Japan never developed a genuine strategic cooperation despite their many shared geopolitical and economic interests, instead (since the turn of the century) pursuing a thinly-veiled rivalry? Second, why has time not healed the wounds of past conflicts, with the period since the mid-1980s instead witnessing an increasingly vivid and bitter recollection of history that bedevils both official and popular relations? Third, why have conventional bilateral ties as well as "people-to-people" contacts developed since normalisation signally failed to bridge the significant divisions between the two societies in terms of values, trust, and mutual understanding?

This article is devoted to an overview of post-normalisation Sino-Japanese relations. I first provide a brief chronology of their bilateral relations from 1972 to the present day, before focusing on the three puzzles noted above. The analysis shows that the international geopolitical context and the contrasting political systems of the two countries have indeed significantly obstructed Sino-Japanese cooperation over the past 40 years. Nevertheless, the deterioration of their relationship actually began well before there appeared to be any prospect of China challenging Japan economically and militarily, and followed decades during which Japanese people had blithely ignored China's authoritarianism. I therefore argue that emotions and biases deeply engrained in the two societies, reinforced by the machinations of insecure political elites, and largely unchallenged by the rather superficial nature of most bilateral interaction at the popular level, have contributed to the persistent recurrence of instability and tension in Sino-Japanese relations since 1972.

The bumpy path of post-normalisation relations

Soon after World War II, China and Japan were drawn into opposing strategic camps of the emerging Cold War in Asia. Antagonism reached a point of no return when Mao Zedong declared in June 1949 that China would lean to one side, the socialist side. For its part, Japan signed a security treaty with the United States, or Anpo, in September 1951 - in the midst of the Korean conflict, in which Chinese troops had intervened on the Communist side. Thereafter Japan recognised the Nationalist government in Taiwan as the sole legitimate representative of China. The freeze in Sino-Japanese relations lasted until normalisation in1972, which inaugurated four decades (so far) of bilateral ties marked by many ups and downs. …

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