Riots and Remembrance: Rising Tensions between China and Japan

By Collins, Michael | Contemporary Review, June 2005 | Go to article overview

Riots and Remembrance: Rising Tensions between China and Japan


Collins, Michael, Contemporary Review


THREE busloads of paramilitary troops were guarding the Japanese Embassy in Beijing in April after thousands of demonstrators threw bottles, stones and eggs at the building in the biggest street protests against Japan since relations between China and Japan were normalized in 1972. Japanese cars and shops were meanwhile wrecked by marchers in the cities of Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen in the south. A Chinese retailers' association urged a boycott of Japanese products such as beer and coffee. Also among the demonstrators' demands was for Japan to be denied a seat on the reformed UN Security Council.

The protests were sparked by the publication of a new history textbook in Japan that China says whitewashes Japanese wartime atrocities including mass sex slavery and germ warfare practised by Japanese troops. At least twelve million Chinese citizens (and some say as many as thirty million) died during Japan's occupation of China from 1937 to 1945.

After outraged protests by Japan and demands for compensation, the Chinese government tried to mend fences by highlighting its efforts to protect Japanese interests, agreed to pay for the damage to the embassy and called on the public to end unrest that might damage economic ties.

Whilst the textbook controversy could be seen as simply a repetition of previous incidents, the events of April 2005 are significant because of the scale and vehemence of the protests. Such marches would have been impossible without at least tacit government approval, which makes them all the more inflammatory towards Japan.

The textbook row focuses on the still-unresolved issues between China and Japan over Japan's behaviour before and during World War II. Anything that reminds China of the Japanese occupation tends to result in friction. The upcoming 60th anniversary of VJ Day, the date of the Japanese surrender, has freshly agitated Chinese grievances, particularly over Japan's failure in Chinese eyes to show adequate remorse. Regarding the textbook, Tokyo says that private companies, not the government, are responsible and that it is up to individual school districts to decide which books they use.

The sudden downturn in Sino-Japanese relations, however, is the product of many more factors. China's growing economic might, accompanying military build-up, and attitude towards Taiwan have seemed ample justification to Japan for a more muscular foreign policy. At the same time, competition for access to oil and gas reserves in the East China Sea continue to strain relations. The neighbours are the world's second and third-biggest oil consumers. China's economic boom will come to a halt without increased regular, long-term oil supplies, whilst oil is similarly crucial to Japan. China has criticized Japan for deciding, after three decades of restraint, to lift the ban on drilling for oil near the tiny, uninhabited Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, an area of the East China Sea which both countries claim as part of their exclusive economic zone, although the exact boundary had previously been left to future negotiations. In response to Japan's move to start the process of awarding gas exploration rights to private Japanese companies, China has hinted at unspecified retaliation. As a measure of how significant this dispute is, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Qin Gang, has called the gas-drilling decision a 'serious provocation'. Japan, however, says the drilling is to take place in an area east of what Tokyo says is its sea border with China, and that lifting the ban on exploration is actually a response to Chinese exploration. Japan has repeatedly protested against this but Beijing says its surveys are within its own zone and has refused to halt them or to share the results.

The dispute over the islands has its roots in the interpretation of the 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki and later agreements. It is beyond question that Japan controlled the islands from 1895 and that the US restored the administration to Japan after World War II. …

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