Following the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842, China and the greater East Asian region were plagued by the so-called unequal treaties: foreign powers exploited East Asia for favorable trading status, as East Asia began to be more influenced by the West. In China, this was the beginning of the Century of Humiliation in which China struggled to define itself in the modern day. In Japan, however, leaders responded by embracing modernity through the Meiji reforms and focusing on building an empire. Japan began to expand its influence into China, taking on the role of a pseudo-colonizer that exploited China. Japan’s subsequent abusive actions created long-lasting Chinese resentment towards Japan. After their eventual defeat, however, Japan was occupied and guided by the US, which seemed to define its relations with China: Japan became wary of rearming and shied away from its imperial past, instead emphasizing economic growth. As such, the current Sino-Japanese relationship is still influenced by historical events and sentiments surrounding them, namely the Pacific War and Japan’s subsequent defeat.
However, these historical legacies have also been contradicted in the modern day: China has been willing to cooperate with Japan on trade and intraregional issues, and Japan has taken provocative actions in the region. As such, in the present, although many actions are guided by Japan and China’s historical past, new developments have occurred that nuance Sino-Japanese relations.
Leading up to and following the Opium War and subsequent Treaty of Nanjing, the Qing dynasty was weakening: internal turmoil and corruption made China susceptible to other powers. China was resistant to reform, however, instead opting to look inward. Contrasting this mentality, Japan began to look westward as it sought to modernize its society: during this Meiji Restoration Period, Japan began to act like a European power, striving to build an empire. This mentality dictated Japanese foreign policy and its subsequent relations for the decades to come, first surfacing in the invasion of China and subsequent Sino-Japanese War of 1894. Japanese victory in this war shocked China, and the subsequent Treaty of Shimonoseki shifted the power dynamic: Chinese weakness was now evident, and Japan began to craft spheres of influence within China. Such an event was a shock to Chinese pride, and Japan began to view China as a trade and investment opportunity, setting up an administration that initially was meant to remain in mainly Chinese hands.
World War I would prove to further catalyze Japan’s colonial aspiration, as Japan expanded its influence in China, developing the idea of “one Asia” in which Japan would lead the region while other Asian countries would accept a subordinate role. Japan desired to become autarkic, following Shidehar’s argument that they must protect trade and investment in China through the creation of political stability. However, by 1930 Japan believed that it had “no choice but to cope with East Asian matters on its own responsibility and at its own risk,” resulting in the Mukden Incident of 1931. Japan believed that if it showed enough power, China would fold and become a part of a greater co-prosperity sphere. This New Order of East Asia meant that Japan wanted to create a self-sufficient defense sphere, as it invested heavily in companies in Manchuria and Shanghai. However, China was not easily subjugated, as anti-Japanese sentiments began to arise and subsequent actions took place, specifically directed at Japan’s military invasion and actions.
Japanese aggression continued to escalate during this period, eventually culminating in the Pacific War. This created a sense of fear amongst Chinese leaders that proved to guide foreign relations decisions. Events such as the Rape of Nanjing and the use of comfort women led to citizens’ calls for Japanese expulsion, a sentiment that the Chinese Communist Party used as they promised to fight the Japanese as part of their larger campaign. As such, anti-Japanese rhetoric is ingrained in the Party’s basis and has guided its actions since the initial Pacific War confrontation: fear of Japan was a main factor for China allying with the USSR, and it similarly guided China’s decision to enter the Korean War of 1950, as China was constantly worried about the possibility of a future invasion by the United States and Japan.
China’s involvement in Korea, guided by underlying fear, marked the beginning of the Cold War, something that would guide US policy towards Japan: the US increased its defense budget and enacted a reverse course in Japan, emphasizing economic development with the hopes of Japan becoming a bastion of anti-communism. US policy even seemed to encourage Sino-Japanese cooperation, as SCAP promoted Sino-Japanese trade to boost Japanese production. Although Japan was eager to rebuild its economy and embraced democratic reforms, it was resistant to rearmament, wary of its imperialistic past. Japan enacted Article 9, following a non-militarized and pragmatic course of action, evident in the Yoshida Letter and the Peace Treaty with Tapei: Yoshida was indifferent towards Chinese rhetoric, as he viewed China solely as a natural market that had been critical to Japan in the past and could still be so.
China, however, continued to be guided by its fear and suspicion of Japan during this period. After an agreement with the US to withdraw troops from the region, Zhou Enlai expressed his concerns about Japan moving into South Korea and Taiwan, allowing the US to stay. Japan, however, shaped by US occupation, desired to have relations with the PRC for trade purposes, forming official relations within several months of the 1972 Nixon Shocks. This contrasted the drawn-out Sino-US rapprochement, showcasing and proving Japan’s flexibility. Such an action was followed by Zhou Enlai’s support of Japan’s weapons build-up in 1973, implying a shift in Chinese attitudes and a “marked improvement in Sino-Japanese relations.” It could be argued that such cooperation resulted from credible assurances of Japan’s disarmament.
In the late 1970s and into the 1980s, Japan continued its emphasis on economic growth, coming to the forefront in the world economic order. Furthermore, Japan’s wariness towards rearmament has allowed for it to use more funds for such ventures and cooperation. During the reform-period, Sino-Japanese trade began to deepen, as Japan began to use aid as the “principal mechanism” for developing involvement with its neighbors, lending yen to China in both 1979 and 1984. This reflected the possibility of a more cooperative relationship.
However, in 1991, the USSR crumbled, leaving the Chinese Communist Party in a state of limbo: how would the CCP move forward? China decided that they did not want to be another Russia renewing a sense of nationalism in which China distrusted the United States and its allies, namely Japan. China began to draw on its past, teaching its citizens that China was victimized by Japanese imperialists during the Pacific War. This completely shifted the narrative: Japan as a nation was made the enemy instead of just the Japanese leaders. This reversion to the past seemed to limit opportunities of cooperation.
Anti-Japanese sentiment rooted in past Pacific War brutalities and exploitations would prove to color Sino-Japanese relations for the years to come, as China became worried yet again that Japan would use its military technology against China. As such, China has continuously viewed Japanese actions in the region with suspicion, questioning Japan’s military budget and the possibility of Japan eroding Article 9 of their constitution. This sentiment has led to calls for attacks on the “unrepentant Japan.” Furthermore, the Communist party now pins a great deal of its legitimacy on defending itself against the Japanese, as this evokes more emotion than calls for global cooperation do. Anti-Japanese rhetoric has also greatly affected the general populace, as nationalistic protests have become more prevalent throughout China: in 2004 soccer riots and online anti-Japanese petitions occurred, and in 2005 and 2012 Chinese nationalist protestors called for boycotts on Japanese products.
However, over time the two countries have formed a transnational production network, creating a sense of interdependence. Herein lies a contradiction: anti-Japanese nationalism from the past is straining the Sino-Japanese relationship, yet the two countries rely on each other for economic production. Furthermore, Japan and China are keeping closer economic ties, as Japan has directly invested in China in higher volume: intraregional trade has begun to outstrip extra-regional trade. Although Japan had “long been China’s largest trade partner,” this relationship has only more recently begun to become more reciprocal.
Further complicating relations are the politics of each country. Following the financial crisis of 2008, China has begun to take more of a lead role in the region and assure its neighbors of a peaceful rise. However, regional actions have actually proven to alienate Japan. Coupled with this alienation is the fact that in Japan, nationalism has begun to rise, as Abe has taken strides strengthen the military. Nationalist factions that both deny Japanese imperial history and call for Japanese sovereignty have begun to yield power.
Recently, such domestic issues have resulted in conflict. For example, in 2010, a Chinese fishing boat rammed into a Japanese coast guard. In response, Japan prosecuted the fisherman in Japan, implying that the water was within Japanese jurisdiction. China reacted by cutting off rare earth metals to Japan, and the foreign ministry blasted Japan for reparation. History of anti-Japanese sentiment guided much of this anger, and China became incredibly unpopular in Japan, further alienating Japan.
Further adding to this alienation were China’s actions towards the Senkaku Islands: China has been actively trying to erode Japanese administration of the islands. However, in 2012 the Japanese government allowed the purchase of the island which was met with violent protest in Japan. This is a case in which the Chinese history of anti-Japanese sentiment and nationalism has fed into a reaction. Furthermore, China declared an ADIZ over the East China Sea, which has created further escalation in the area. Many Japanese leaders now view China as a bully, yet Japan itself has begun to take actions to self-strengthen, reflected both in the military buildup and in Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, an action that implies Abe desires to diminish the historical role in World War II.
Recently, China, under the strong leadership of Xi Jinping, has been attempting to increase its status, using soft power methods to influence other state actors. With Xi’s unveiling of the One Belt One Road initiative, it is difficult to deny this trend. Furthermore, Japan has been in the longest recession in history without much hope for the future. However, Abe has continuously sought to utilize new methods to bring Japan back to the forefront, announcing his “Japan 2020” plan. This implies that Japan might not step aside to Chinese hegemony, especially with China’s actions in the South China Sea and abroad. This could imply that more conflicts both direct and indirect may arise, as there seems to be a never-ending cycle of Chinese suspicion of Japan leading to Chinese action followed by a Japanese reaction.
This cycle could not be understood without understanding the historical context: Japanese aggression of the past has created such sentiment. Furthermore, the Japanese desire to become a leader yet again in Asia is likewise rooted in history: following the Japanese Miracle in reaction to economic development, Japan enjoyed a decade of prosperity in the 1980s. Such a desire may prove to dictate Japanese actions, which will also affect Chinese reactions.