Japan-China mind games

by Brad Glosserman

HONOLULU — Two weeks in China have left me concerned about future relations between Japan and China. A smooth and cooperative Japan-China relationship is essential to regional peace, stability and prosperity. Yet increasing interaction at just about every level of the relationship has generated many irritants. I’m not sure that increased contact between the two countries will create the understanding needed to improve that relationship, but increasing integration will help. As in a boxing match, it’s harder to punch while in the opponent’s clinch.

At the level of high politics, the relationship is solid. The two leaderships (from prime ministers and presidents on down) have regular meetings on a variety of subjects and at many different regional and international forums.

At the grass-roots level, numbers are encouraging. In 2003, 2.25 million of China’s 7.26 million Asian visitors came from Japan, making Japan the No. 1 source of tourists. Some 452,000 Chinese visited Japan in 2002. More than 70,000 Chinese students were in Japan as of May 2003, a 21 percent increase over the year before, and they accounted for 64.7 percent of the foreign students in Japan.

A little more than 3,000 Japanese students are in China. There are over 220 sister-city relationships as well as an expanding number of nongovernmental organizations, working on a variety of bilateral topics and issues.

Economic relations are positive. Chinese statistics show that trade volume between the two nations topped $130 billion in 2003, an increase of 30.4 percent from the previous year. Two-way trade is expected to exceed $150 billion this year, marking six years of continuous growth. Last year, China was the biggest exporter to Japan, providing 18.3 percent of Japan’s imports. Japanese exports to China reached 6.6 trillion yen in 2003, a 33.8 percent increase, making the mainland the second-largest export market for Japan.

After complaining of the “China threat” to Japan’s economy, Japanese businesses now recognize that the economic relationship presents a win-win opportunity for both countries. China’s growth has become the engine of Japan’s recovery: Much of Japanese growth is attributable to exports to China, which grew 42.8 percent in 2003. Expanding Japanese investment in China — $5.2 billion in 2002 — is linking the two economies ever tighter.

Yet for each positive sign, there is a disturbing “other side of the coin”:

The two leaderships may rub shoulders, but there was no official visit by either country’s leader to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the normalization of the bilateral relationship or the 25th anniversary of the Sino-Japanese Treaty of Peace and Friendship. In fact, no supreme Chinese leader has visited Japan since former President Jiang Zemin’s contentious 1998 trip. The last time a Japanese prime minister visited China was in 2001 — before Junichiro Koizumi became prime minister. Beijing has repeatedly (and publicly) rejected attempts to arrange a Koizumi visit.

Despite growing exchanges and grass-roots efforts, the two publics have negative impressions of the other. A 2003 yearend survey showed that 28.4 percent of Japanese thought that relations with China were good/very good; 31.5 percent, bad/very bad; and 30.4 percent could not say (the rest didn’t answer).

One survey found that 93.1 percent of Chinese Internet users do not like Japan. Since most Internet users are relatively young, those results imply tough times ahead for bilateral relations.

Similarly, the most negative Japanese attitudes toward China are evident among young Japanese, who increasingly resent Chinese efforts to assume the moral high ground on every issue.

As Japanese analysts highlight increasing integration, Chinese analysts note that Japan is playing a less important role in China’s economy. Sino-Japan trade constituted 23.6 percent of China’s foreign trade in 1985 but fell to 15.7 percent in 2003. And Japanese capital is shrinking as a share of total foreign investment in China: Only 7.9 percent of foreign capital actually used by China was from Japan in 2002, compared with 14.4 percent in 1990.

Economic relations also create friction. China and Japan have accused each other of dumping various products (from tatamis to optical fiber) in each other’s markets. One Chinese analysis blamed Japanese television manufacturers for being behind U.S. antidumping claims against China.

I was in China during the Asian Cup soccer tournament. Chinese friends (and the Beijing government) tried to downplay the ugly scenes — including flag-burning and fake blood dripping from mock swords — but the anger against the Japanese team and its supporters was palpable. The protests seemed much more political and deep-rooted than mere soccer hooliganism.

In September 2003, there was Chinese outrage over “an orgy” by Japanese businessmen in a Zhuhai hotel; a month later, an off-color skit by Japanese students at Xian University caused an uproar.

The Japanese have their own grievances, such as when Chinese police entered the Shenyang Consulate in May 2002 and dragged away North Korean refugees seeking asylum. More recently, several major crimes, notably a murder in Fukuoka in June 2003, have been attributed to Chinese. In short, negative stereotypes of the other have been and magnified.

Outside observers sometimes blame regional competition for fanning ill will. The fight over a Russian oil pipeline route is held up as an example. But the explanation isn’t convincing. Both Japanese and Chinese play down the notion of serious competition between them. In fact, the Chinese tend to be dismissive or condescending toward Japan’s role when discussing regional issues. Time is on their side. Their confidence is supported by demographic statistics that undercut any long-term Japanese hopes to challenge China’s regional ascent.

Problems in this relationship are rooted in the past, not the future, and appear to be growing with the passage of time, instead of receding. Chinese officials have made it clear that Koizumi’s visits to Yasukuni Shrine, the memorial to Japan’s war dead, are the primary impediment to improved bilateral relations at official levels. Chinese analysts dismiss the message of peace the prime minister delivers during those visits, saying actions speak louder than his words. Nothing he can say seems to allay Chinese anger toward the visits. In conversations with experts and meetings with ordinary Chinese, the message is the same: Japan has no understanding of, or respect for, Chinese feelings.

Japan serves as a scapegoat in Chinese domestic politics. Beijing’s policies toward Hong Kong and Taiwan are failing, and frustrations with the United States are mounting. Since all three topics are sensitive, Japan becomes a politically acceptable outlet for anger.

The Chinese government understands that Japan-bashing as a means of whipping up patriotic sentiment can be a double-edged sword. Beijing needs a good relationship with Tokyo. Mass demonstrations like those that followed the Asian Cup final tar China’s international image. As a result, the Chinese government tried to play down the protests, which are fueled in part by subtle (and not so subtle) anti-Japanese sentiments expressed in Chinese textbooks, newspapers and government statements.

There is another domestic angle to anti-Japan sentiment. The Chinese people have precious few opportunities to voice political dissent: They can protest Taiwan’s elections, U.S. unilateralism and Japanese arrogance. “Anti-” is acceptable. Mass demonstrations are their only means of having input — or feeling that they have input — into political decision making. My sense is that this adds to the anger directed at Japan.

It appears then that deep-rooted animosity in China will discourage serious work to improve relations. The best option then is government-encouraged integration to increase interdependence and mutual vulnerability.

The tighter the two countries’ fates and fortunes are linked — whether politically or economically — the less room there will be for profiting at the expense of the other.