Beyond Stability: New Directions for Sino-Japanese Relations

By Satoh, Yukio | Harvard International Review, Spring 1996 | Go to article overview

Beyond Stability: New Directions for Sino-Japanese Relations

Satoh, Yukio, Harvard International Review

THE FUTURE OF THE SINO-JAPANESE relationship will have broad implications for regional and global security. In the past, Japan's policy toward China has been aimed at building up politically stable relations and expanding economic ties. While these goals will continue to be important in the coming years, new features of Japanese foreign policy are emerging that are likely to influence the nature of the Sino-Japanese relationship. As Japan takes a more active role in regional and global political and security issues, it will redefine its policy goals and priorities in order to meet post-Cold War challenges. Japan-US relations, Japan's role in the Asia Pacific region, and Japan's contribution to the United Nations are already the subjects of such redefinition. Japan's policy toward China is likely to undergo a similar transformation. In the coming years, as Japan pursues more activist political goals in the Asia Pacific region and around the globe, Japan's China policy must emphasize making Sino-Japanese relations productive for these new goals and priorities.

To date, Japan and China have concentrated attention on developing politically stable bilateral relations and on expanding economic ties. Building up stable relations with China, a victim of Japanese aggression in the past and a potential threat to Japanese security in the future, has been an important aim of Japan's post-World War II foreign policy. Japan has also sought the expansion of bilateral trade and economic relations, and in recent years, China has provided valuable sites for investment to Japanese businesses. For China, the normalization and improvement of relations with Japan after World War II had at least two strategic advantages. First, it strengthened China's position vis-a-vis the Soviet Union. Second, it helped attain Japanese financial and technological support for the development of China's economy.

Japan's process of improving relations with China has not always been smooth. China is particularly sensitive to Japanese attitudes toward Taiwan, a former Japanese colony, and Chinese vigilance on Japanese adherence to the "One China" policy has often strained relations. In addition, China's claim on the Japanese islets in the East China Sea (the Senkaku islands) has also caused public contention between the two countries.

Nevertheless, political will on both sides always worked to prevent these problems from adversely affecting cooperation in the economic field, and the two governments often made highly political decisions in order to save the relationship from damaging confrontations. This overtone of "friendship" emphasized by the Japanese and Chinese governments has worked favorably for regional security and has contributed to the tacit Chinese recognition of the stabilizing role of the Japan-US Security Treaty.

Furthermore, Japanese economic assistance to China and the growth of economic interdependence between the two countries has helped open the Chinese economy and society to the outside world. And, as demonstrated in the developments in the 1980s and 1990s, this opening enhanced the Chinese people's awareness of the value of individual rights and freedom and of the need for political reform. Such developments have profound long-term implications for security in East Asia. Japan has also cooperated with China on some foreign policy issues outside the framework of bilateral relations. Japan worked in close cooperation with China for the restoration of peace in Cambodia, and the Japanese government is in close contact with the Chinese government for the common purpose of preventing North Korea from developing nuclear weapons.

Economic relations will remain the mainstay of Sino-Japanese relations. Chinese economic growth will continue to require close economic ties with Japan, although Chinese needs for Japanese financial and technological assistance might become smaller as many other countries come to invest in China. …

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