Sino-Japanese Relations: The Sun Sets on a Bad Year

The end of the calendar year brings closure, of a sort, to the news cycle.  The (disorderly and American-style) marketing of mayhem and chaos awaits a new year.

To remark, then, on a few tropes of Sino-Japanese Relations at the final aperture of 2010.

The Japanese press, frustrated by Japan’s inadaquate response to the Diaoyutai/Sengaku Islands episode this past September, and aware that the Chinese government can unleash a horde of pre-unemployed students to protest against all real and perceived infractions of the Japanese Self Defense Forces, is fulminating about Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea.

Asahi Shimbun reporter Kenji Minemura reports from Hainan island, wasting no words, opening his article “China’s Scenario to Seize Isles in South China Sea” with the sentence “China is moving into regional bully mode.”

Can I emphasize how bad things are, or can I just refer you to this article’s recounting of Guangzhou military district officials bragging about their ability to destroy U.S. aircraft carriers or the piece’s logical leap from Chinese fishing boat patrols into a Chinese plot to dominate East Asia’s main shipping lanes?

For its part, having stirred up the hornets, the Chinese media is now taking a more harmonious/oblivious line, wondering why anyone is concerned at all, even going so far as to emphasize the good news from public opinion polls from Japan that indicate that fewer and fewer Japanese citizens see China’s rise as a purely innocuous phemonomenon.

Image via Pierre Haski, Rue89

In its beautifully vague and sinister fashion, China Daily offers a bromide which really manages to turn as it goes down:

But the US should realize that times have changed. The situation in Asia today and the relationship between China and other Asian countries cannot be compared with those in the past. Vested interests’ attempt to “encircle” China to “contain” its rise does not conform to the trend of the changing times. Although countries neighboring China need the cooperation and support of the US, and to some extent even want it to “help maintain the balance of power”, none of them would like to side with Washington against Beijing.

We cannot assume that the relationships between China and its neighbors are deteriorating, because that is not the truth. If we tend to just follow the Western media and sensationalize the frictions between China and its neighbors, we will fall in the trap laid by some Western powers to create divisions between China and other Asian countries.

Clumsy, reminiscent of the early 1960s, hardly likely to convince Japanese elites, but somewhere buried in this piece is the admission that China’s diplomacy in East Asia is in fact in disarray.

Fortunately The Economist offers a succinct and essential analysis of this very theme:

Maybe China has decided that, contrary to its own protestations, it does not really need smooth foreign relations. Or maybe its diplomacy is a mess. The Chinese scholar offers three possible explanations. One is the confusing proliferation of “non-diplomatic” bodies and special-interest groups in foreign policy, from oil firms to the army to, in the case of Japan, the marine affairs and fisheries bureaus. But the other two may be more telling: the increasing importance of Chinese public opinion and the absence of any senior political figure in charge of foreign policy. The foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, is not a member of the Communist Party’s 25-member Politburo, let alone its nine-member, decision-making Standing Committee. There is nobody to thump the table for foreign relations. Abroad does not matter very much.

And of course the Japan theme, apprehensions of the United States, and the tensions on the Korean peninsula are all tied together.

Tensions in Korea overshadowed it at the time, but the Japanese ambassador did make a visit to Nanking/Nanjing earlier this month.  While outlets like China Daily somewhat predictably played it up as part of the pre-programmed trend toward stabilizing relations, the Huanqiu Shibao‘s coverage, while not meriting front-page treatment, was less generous.  The ambassador came in for criticism for going to Nanjing for three days and “avoiding / raodao” the Memorial Hall to the Victims of the Nanking Massacre, a step which one Qinghua University professor stated would “aggravate the Chinese people.”  Instead of dropping to his knees Willi Brandt-style (Xinhua’s preferred posture, it would appear, for Japanese officials in China), the ambassador  promoted economic and language exchanges, noting that there are 7000 Japanese companies doing business in Jiangsu.   At a news conference on his first day in Nanjing, asked about the Memorial Hall, he said “I’ve been there before.”

With Zhang Yimou filming an immense new Nanking Massacre film (in Jiangsu, starting January 10, with Christian Bale) and the appetite for anti-Japanese antipathy high in China, things seem hardly likely to settle down too much in 2011.

Among the other tropes in Sino-Japanese relations in 2010:

– The  origin and the meaning of anti-Japanese demonstrations in Chengdu and Chongqing in October 2010 remain relatively unanalyzed.  In Sichuan, the popular memory of World War II remains strong and (as is abundantly evident in places like the Jianchuan Museum Cluster) the state is far from the exclusive creator of anti-Japanese narratives.

– Rare earth export politics continue apace.

– Increased people-to-people exchanges in spite of the political upheavals.  The Chinese ambassador in Tokyo is getting into the act as well.  Efforts are being made to repair relations in response to the somewhat bleak outlook.



  1. Come on Adam, that article by KENJI MINEMURA is a joke. “a source”? “a Chinese military source”? “some Chinese military officers”? Can he get more wishy-washy than that? I could have written a similar article about some menacing Japanese and American plans citing some anonymous “Japanese source”, “American source” that I pulled out of my ass.

    I do think China needs to rethink its diplomacy with the neighboring states, not that China shouldn’t be assertive at all. What are their goals? Does being assertive help achieve these goals? I for one would like to see China have smoother relations with neighboring states in Southeast Asia (ASEAN countries) and South Asia (India in particular), not particularly with Japan though (Japan after all is just an American pawn no matter what). China should NOT help make the Americans’ job of forming an anti-Chinese alliance easier by alienating those that don’t necessarily need to be alienated. With regard to the Americans who are hell bent on containing and undermining China, I believe China should be more assertive. The Americans won’t be less “lenient” toward China simply because China becomes more silent.

    1. Hi Juche, great to see you back here — I think that “China should NOT help make the Americans’ job of forming an anti-Chinese alliance easier by alienating those that don’t necessarily need to be alienated” is precisely the crux of the matter. It seems that the CCP is incapable of reaching out to Japan in a sustainable fashion. Too enamored of riding the tiger of the textbook issue, etc.

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