China and the World

A crisis waiting to happen?

Author discusses the potential trouble ahead for Sino-Japanese relations


McGregor: Sino-Japanese expert

From the earliest editions of WiC (see issue 14) we have argued that one of the most volatile and potentially dangerous relationships the world faces is between a rising China and a nervy Japan that feels threatened by this geopolitical shift. Thankfully there is now a book that discusses this topic with the thoroughness, intelligence and insightfulness it deserves.

Richard McGregor’s new book Asia’s Reckoning: the Struggle for Global Dominance is a masterful history of Sino-Japanese relations. It benefits from painstaking research and the author’s own time living in both countries as a correspondent (he was a longtime bureau chief for the Financial Times in Beijing). The Australian journalist, who previously wrote The Party: the Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers, this week spoke to WiC about the strained relations between East Asia’s two major powers and whether it is likely to get worse, and possibly even spark belligerence in the years ahead.

Would you date 1895 as the start of Sino-Japanese animosity or would you put it even earlier?

If you are looking at modern history, then 1895 is your starting date, the moment that Japan defeated China in a war and took possession of Taiwan. Combined with the defeat of the Russians in 1905, both events announced Japan’s arrival as a major world power, and the first in the modern times from Asia. True aficiandos of the bilateral relationship trace the mutual antagonism way back, however, from the 6th and 7th centuries onwards, where there was a lot of conflict and squaring off over many centuries. My book, however, really covers the postwar period.

Can you explain the legacy of the War of Japanese Aggression (1937-45) and the disputes (eg over Nanjing) that still cause such disagreements between Chinese and Japanese historians today?

History is one thing – Japan did invade China and the Rape of Nanjing is not fake news, despite the periodic grating denials from some far-right Japanese politicians. But the history of the ‘history wars’ is altogether different, and layered with hypocrisy and politics on both sides. In the 1950s, 60s, 70s, and really into the mid-80s, China never made much of an issue of history, both internally and in dealing with the Japanese. Remember – the core narrative of the post-revolutionary period was that China was a victor in the war and its aftermath. The narrative, portraying China as a victim of the Japanese and others, didn’t change until much later, in the 1980s and 1990s.

I think the key moment was the 1972 agreement to restore ties between the two countries. Japan muttered some anodyne expression of regret which was fine with China as they had other fish to fry – notably forming a united front against the Soviet Union and getting aid from a successful Japan. Considering what had happened between the two countries, and the memories of the bitter conflict among the Chinese people, this was a big mistake. There was no ceremony, no landmarks, no attempt to get a shared sense of history when diplomatic ties were restored, so when China did decide they wanted an apology, the Japanese struggled to handle the issue in a clear and forthright fashion.

Why did Mao Zedong not put the issue of a Japanese war apology to rest in the 1960s?

Mao didn’t care about apologies. He was only interested in geopolitics. He was also an unassailable dictator, so his policy of not pursuing an apology was really holy writ throughout the system. Famously, he even thanked the Japanese for invading China, as it allowed the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) to defeat the KMT in China’s civil war. Only Mao could get away with such a statement.

So Mao was a big part of the problem. The fact that he dismissed the importance of the war and didn’t bother with commemorating events like the Nanjing Massacre was an important factor in persuading Japanese conservatives that history didn’t matter. They got a big shock when they discovered that history hadn’t gone away after all. Naturally, they were forever cynical that the issue was only being used as political leverage.

Your book says the high point for Sino-Japanese relations was the early period of reform and opening under Deng Xiaoping. Why?

In a nutshell, Japan was strong and China was weak. China needed Japan. Deng himself was very practical and understood what Japan had achieved. Deng in fact visited Japan in 1978 before he made his famous trip to the US and it had a huge influence on him.

By the same token, Japan wanted good ties with China, for emotional and practical reasons. Japanese leaders, by and large, did carry great remorse about the country’s lapse into militarism in the 1930s. They were also very commercially minded and saw China as a country that could be converted to capitalism, to Japan’s enormous benefit.

Personalities mattered as well. In Japan, Nakasone Yasuhiro worked hard to build ties with China and made concessions on history issues at Beijing’s request. In China, Hu Yaobang went out of his way to court Japan, so much so that conservatives in Beijing attacked him for being too pro-Japan in 1987 when they toppled him from his position as the CCP Party secretary. The turn against Japan in China, in fact, ran in close parallel with the turn against liberalism in the CCP.

Could China have developed to where it is today without Japanese aid and investment in this period? Do the Chinese acknowledge this assistance?

China would have developed one way or another with or without Japan. But there is no doubt that Japan helped greatly. Japan was a model in a policy sense in the early days of China’s ‘reform and opening’. Many of China’s policies and headline gimmicks – such as holding down military spending and targets to double GDP and income – all had their origins in Japan.

Japanese financial aid was also crucial. The world is wowed these days by Chinese infrastructure. But the first wave of roads and airports and the like in the 1980s were funded by the Japanese, and they rarely got the credit for it. Occasionally, if relations were going well, then the official Chinese press would laud Japanese aid. Just as often, they would bury news of Japan’s generosity. The plaques memoralising Japanese aid were rarely displayed in prominent positions. To this day, many Japanese remain bitter about this.

In the wake of the social turmoil in China in the late 1980s, patriotic education in schools became more important. Can you explain what patriotic education boils down to and what it meant for Sino-Japanese relations in more recent times?

Patriotic education is quite natural in many ways. Every country does it to varying degrees. Look at the reverence afforded the flag and the pledge of allegiance in the US, to take one example. But in China’s case, the explosion in patriotic education in the early 1990s in the wake of the 1989 military crackdown on demonstrators in Beijing and elsewhere has a very specific political context. The demonstrations in 1989 were an existential threat to the CCP. They needed to build a narrative which would implant in young Chinese the notion that the Party had rescued an enfeebled China and returned it to its proper place on the global stage. Since this was a CCP campaign, it was enforced ruthlessly. Remember – during the 1950s, the Nanjing Massacre was barely mentioned in the People’s Daily, then a good barometer of political dialogue. Today, the Nanjing Massacre is centre stage, along with other memories of the war.

The CCP’s narrative has many flaws, not least the fact that it wasn’t the CCP who fought against and beat the Japanese. The main players in that conflict were the KMT and the US-led allies.

In the late 1990s then-Premier Zhu Rongji said to Japanese counterparts they would regret not apologising to his generation for the war. Do you think he was right given the more combative course relations have taken in the past five years?

Was Zhu right? Yes and no. By the time he made that comment, the issue has already become overlaid by a decade of politics and recrimination. Also, Zhu made his comments in the wake of President Jiang Zemin’s 1998 trip to Japan where he ranted in public, including in front of the Emperor, about the war and the need for an apology. The Japanese never forgot that. So Zhu’s comments in that respect were a little gratuitous.

Zhu, however, had a point in one respect. The generation of leaders coming after him and Jiang would not necessarily have been more anti-Japanese. But the new breed would have been more nationalistic and in charge of a country that demanded its leaders display China’s might in the world and in the region. They were also in charge of a much more powerful country with the means to bend Japan to its will.

To Chinese minds, has Tokyo delivered a satisfactory written apology for the war, or does that remain an ongoing source of contention?

I think the issue of a “written apology” is one of semantics. Japan has apologised often and in many different forums. From the Japanese perspective, the Chinese always seem to be moving the goalposts and demanding more. On the Japanese side, the problem is that there has always been some recalcitrant right-winger who will make some outrageous statement undermining the official apologies. So Japan apologises, and then it, in not so many words, it unapologises. So the whole process is drained of meaning and impact.

Why did it take till the Obama era for American policymakers to understand the seriousness of these post-World War Two legacy issues and their still corrosive impact in East Asian politics?

A number of reasons. America had its own skeletons in the closet, such as the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Many officials underestimated the problem. Many also thought that any US intervention would only make things worse. And finally, the Japanese, a close ally, warned the US against it. Efforts by the Chinese to raise their shared anti-Japanese history, of course, was only seen as deeply cynical by Washington and was counter-productive.

From a sovereignty point of view the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands remain an open sore in relations. Based on the detailed analysis of Sino-Japanese history recounted in your book, do you think this is a fundamentally unsolvable issue?

It is very difficult to solve because it relates to an issue of sovereignty. That makes it toxic in both political systems. Thus, it can only be managed rather than “solved”.

As China’s rise continues and America’s defence commitment to Japan comes more into question – particularly in the Trump era – do you think Tokyo will move to also become a nuclear power?

There is a very good chance this will happen. It could also happen very quickly, with one proviso. It is an open secret that Japan has the capability and resources to build a nuclear weapon. But public opinion would need to move a long way before Japanese voters were actually in favour of it. Japan has made a fetish of being anti-nuclear for more than 70 years. It will not be easy to unwind such deeply entrenched views.

What probability would you put on their being a war between China and Japan in the next couple of decades?

I didn’t call my book “The Coming War between Japan and China” because I didn’t think one was imminent. But the chances of some kind conflict have risen. Certainly, I was told that in 2012, China considered some kind of military response to Japan’s nationalisation of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. My own view is that China is not interested in going to war. They want to keep the pressure on Tokyo to force them to negotiate over the islands. Having said that, the chances of some kind of collision at sea and the like forcing a confrontation has risen. As has conflict in the region generally, over the South China Sea, and North Korea.

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