China in Transition

China's Confidence in its "New Thinking on Sino-Japanese Relations"

Chi Hung KWAN
Consulting Fellow, RIETI

In contrast to the active economic exchanges between Japan and China in recent years, there has been perpetual friction over such political issues as the Shenyang consulate incident, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's visits to Yasukuni Shrine, and the Japanese government's screening of history textbooks. On paper, some 30 years have passed since relations were normalized between the two countries, but in reality, it cannot be said that true normalization has been achieved. However, there are many problems that cannot be resolved without cooperation between Japan and China, such as maintaining stability in the Korean Peninsula, and there may be grave consequences should the confrontation on the emotional front be left to fester. On the occasion of the birth of the new Communist Party leadership revolving around Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao at the National Party Congress last fall, some in China have begun to speak out about the need to break this deadlock and actively improve the relationship with Japan.

At the forefront of this movement is Ma Licheng, a noted editorial writer for the People's Daily, the paper of the Chinese Communist Party. In December last year, Ma wrote an essay in the journal Strategy and Management titled "New Thinking on Sino-Japanese Relations - Worries of the Chinese and Japanese people" (see note). In this essay, Ma presented a scathing criticism of China's strongly nationalist anti-Japanese sentiment, and said he believed the issue of getting Japan to "apologize" for its wartime aggression had already been resolved. As can be seen from Ma's affiliation, it is more natural to view this essay not simply as a piece that presented his personal views but as a sign from the new party leadership that it wants to improve ties with Japan.

As expected, Ma's essay has drawn strong criticism from the general public, but many in the Chinese media, which usually closely follow the party line, have expressed support for his view. Among them, the essay by Shi Yinhong of the Center for American Studies at the Renmin University of China titled "Japan-China Rapprochement and Diplomatic Revolution" that appeared in the latest issue of Strategy and Management has attracted great attention. Shi warns that 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 is potentially dangerous for China. Furthermore, Japan and China need to close ranks in order to keep American hegemony in check. Shi specifically suggests that China put issues concerning history on the backburner and express understanding for Japan's military build-up, as well as actively supporting Tokyo's bid to become a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. Should the Chinese government embrace such proposals as its own, it would indeed be a landmark change in China's policy toward Japan.

In addition to the changing of the guard in the party leadership, another element that has contributed to the rise of such "magnanimous" new thinking regarding China's policy towards Japan is the rise in China's 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 air and confidence of a major world power. Confidence, in this regard, must be accompanied by actual strength. Unless this is the case, there is an increase in the risk of the general public moving towards an unhealthy nationalism, as symbolized by The China that Can Say No which became a best seller several years ago.

Up until now, China has lacked the confidence needed to forgive Japan. Despite all the propaganda of the Communist Party and the Kuomintang, it is doubtful that many people believe China defeated Japan in World War II on its own. Furthermore, in terms of postwar economic development, China lagged far behind Japan. However, China has entered a period of high economic growth since adopting its market-oriented reform strategy in the late 1970s, and coupled with the economic stagnation in Japan since the 1990s, the economic gap between the two nations has begun to shrink. There is no doubt that this is helping the Chinese public regain confidence.

For the victim to forgive the aggressor, it is important not only for the latter to show sincerity, but also for the former to have the leeway to do so in their hearts. This can also be seen in the recent change in South Korea's attitude toward Japan. The longtime mutual differences regarding history 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 between Japan and South Korea 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. A major reason for this is that their standard of living drew nearer to that of Japan as South Korea joined the ranks of industrialized nations, upon its entry into the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Compared to the Japan-South Korea relationship, there is clearly a lag in the improvement of relations between Japan and China. When it comes to the issue of history, and the differences in perception of it that stand between the two countries, the Chinese are often irritated, wondering, "When will Japan ever apologize?," while the Japanese grumble, "How many times must we apologize before the Chinese forgive us?". While this shows that the ideological gap between the two countries is still very large, if we interpret it favorably, there is the hope that time will solve everything. Furthermore, it is likely that the shrinking economic gap between the two countries, thanks to China's economic progress, will also accelerate reconciliation.

May 30, 2003
  1. This essay also appeared in Japanese in the March 2003 issue of Bungei Shunju and the March 2003 issue of Chuo Koron.

May 30, 2003