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Japan prioritized a “long-term and big-picture” strategy over “democracy and human rights” in its response to China’s 1989 military crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, recently disclosed diplomatic documents have shown.

Opposed to its Western allies’ joint sanctions against China over the incident, Japan was determined to watch over China “patiently and as warmly as possible,” according to the documents.

China’s official death toll in the crackdown is 319, though the actual figure is believed to be much higher.

While the Western allies were toughening their sanctions against China, Japan was quick to resume its official development assistance (ODA) to China.

The 3,123-pages of documents, disclosed by Japan’s Foreign Ministry at the request of Jiji Press, for the first time shed light on details of Tokyo’s diplomatic policy after the incident.

On June 9, 1989, five days after the Tiananmen crackdown, the Japanese Embassy in Beijing sent an urgent telegram to the country’ foreign minister, pointing to the risk of foreign pressure on China prompting it to further harden its stance.

The embassy also mentioned the possibility that the Chinese government would agitate its people to spread anti-foreign sentiment among them.

A man stands in front of a convoy of Chinese military tanks in the Avenue of Eternal Peace in Beijing on June 5, 1989, in the wake of the Tiananmen Square crackdown on pro-democracy protests. | REUTERS
A man stands in front of a convoy of Chinese military tanks in the Avenue of Eternal Peace in Beijing on June 5, 1989, in the wake of the Tiananmen Square crackdown on pro-democracy protests. | REUTERS

A document dated June 22 that year called for prioritizing a “long-term and big-picture standpoint” over “our country’s values (democracy and human rights)” and supporting China’s reform and liberalization.

The document also said that Japan should respond to the incident “in a way that minimizes its impact,” and that it was “not wise” to “isolate China through the West’s concerted condemnation.”

A different document, compiled in the run-up to a meeting between then-Foreign Minister Hiroshi Mitsuzuka and U.S. State Secretary James Baker in Washington on June 26 of the same year, indicated that Japan planned to “avoid reacting excessively or becoming emotional for no reason” and warmly and patiently watch over developments in China.

In a June 21 document, the Foreign Ministry also brought up its plan to refrain from linking Japan’s ODA measures to the human rights situation in China.

“From a long-term perspective on the relationship with China, it would be an overreaction to reflect humanitarian and human rights issues in the basic policy on our country’s economic cooperation with China,” the ministry said.

Meanwhile, Tokyo was also concerned that its membership in the West could be questioned if it overemphasized the differences in thinking between Japan and its U.S. and European allies, according to the documents.

The reason why Tokyo was eager to avoid irritating Beijing can be found in a July 11 document pointing out that Japan was seeing “a weak China” at the time, and China had historically taken an isolationist attitude when it had been weak.

“We also know well how harmful an isolationist China is to peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region,” the document said.

Appreciating Japan’s stance toward China, the government in Beijing sought to end its international condemnation by using Japan’s position as a way to break this down.

In August 1991, then-Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu was the first among Western leaders to visit China since the Tiananmen crackdown. This was followed by an October 1992 visit to the country by then-Emperor Akihito.

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