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In recent years, Japan-China relations have been marked by almost incessant friction over issues ranging from historical questions to more mundane problems.

Indeed, in public opinion polls conducted in both countries, dissatisfaction and angry sentiments are often voiced, while figures show that the number of Chinese or Japanese who feel a sense of closeness toward the other nation is decreasing.

This sort of situation is clearly a reason for concern. However, instead of just wringing their hands, both sides need to get to the bottom of the factors that have led to this state of affairs.

Are Japan and China a threat to each other? Will they view each other as a mutual threat in the future?

This author doesn’t think so. China’s military power is still in the development stage, and apart from the nuclear weapons that it possesses as a deterrent, its regular armed forces, such as the navy and air force, are inferior in quality even compared to those of South Korea and Taiwan.

In addition, the more China’s economy grows, the more it will be nagged by such problems as environmental degradation, maintaining an adequate food supply, dealing with a lack of natural resources and an aging population. It will also inevitably face the issue of further political democratization.

On the other hand, while the technological level of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces greatly exceeds those of the armed forces of its neighbors, the SDF are not of a scale that allows for invasion of a foreign country, and there are constraints, such as the Constitution and the Japan-U.S. security treaty.

More than anything, the global community in the 21st century is unlikely to condone the appearance of a new hegemonic state.

If there is no fundamental clash of interests between China and Japan , then all other issues between them should be solvable. The persistence of frictions and conflicts between the two parties despite this appears to stem mainly from psychological barriers.

A strong China and a weak Japan had defined the landscape of Eastern Asia for a long period of time up until the Meiji Restoration, but those descriptions were reversed during the 100 years after the Sino-Japanese War. While the two sides either revered or looked down on the other during this long expanse of time, there was never a period when the two nations saw each other as equals.

On the same footing

However, during the past decade, both Japan and China have grown to become major powers in Asia and the world on both political and economic fronts and for the first time in their histories have been placed on the same footing. Neither country, however, appears to have become used to the new situation.

While both nations pride themselves on being responsible world powers, they also harbor a sort of complex — a mixture of fear and obsession — toward the other. Deep beneath the eyes of a Japanese viewing China is a fear of that country becoming more powerful. But what many Japanese do not understand is that the Chinese also harbor this “mentality of the weak.”

China, for its part, in addition to having repeatedly lost wars to the great powers in the modern era, even now perceives itself to be terribly behind the industrialized nations in terms of economic development.

This mixture of pride and psychological complex has warped the way these two nations perceive each other. Because of this, neither party feels confident in handling their relationship, and one tends to be excessively sensitive to the words and actions of the other.

Many bilateral issues which are not intractable when viewed calmly are placed under a microscope and cause so much overreaction.

It appears that psychological wavering is the greatest barrier to making objective judgments and taking effective action.

Ironically, another obstacle stems from the increased interchange between the two nations. Trade between Japan and China surpassed the $80 billion level last year. When we recall that trade between Japan and the United States topped that mark in 1984, it becomes clear how swiftly economic ties between Japan and China are growing. Cultural exchanges, as well as interaction at the local-government level, are also blossoming.

However, Chinese and Japanese are often misled by the things they have in common on the surface, such as Oriental facial features, the use of Chinese characters for writing and eating rice as the main staple. These similarities tend to lead them to unconsciously interpret the culture, thought patterns and actions of the other country using their own standards.

In reality, Japan’s culture came into its own and took an independent turn from that of China during the Kamakura Period, roughly eight centuries ago. The two countries have many stark differences — one is a nation closely oriented to the sea, while the other is a state anchored on a huge continent.

Today, in addition to the disparity in land area and population, one is an industrial country while the other is a developing nation; their political systems are also different.

Nevertheless, the citizens of the two nations find comfort in the illusion that they are alike, and are shirking efforts to deepen understanding of each other. It may be said that in many cases in the Japan-China relationship, a psychological schism has developed between them due to self-centered thoughts and actions.

Dismantle the barriers

However, upon entering the 21st century, both the world and Asia are calling on Japan and China to overcome the psychological barriers as swiftly as possible.

Conflict between the two great Asian powers leads to instability in the region, and what is more, unless Japan and China join hands, it will be impossible to construct a regional economic zone or a system of political and security cooperation similar to the European Union.

Whether Asia as a whole can contribute to the progress of human civilization in a sense hinges on whether Japan and China can forge a relationship of mutual trust and cooperation.

If the two countries come to realize that they have such a responsibility to the world, they should first adapt to a new situation where they must stand side by side and show mutual respect.

At the same time, they should acknowledge their differences, seek a middle ground and pursue common interests based on mutual understanding.

I would like to suggest that Japan never forget the lessons of its invasion and ensuing war with China, and that China stop repeatedly referring to it. If the two nations can quickly overcome their past, I expect that they will look toward the future, and that the strengthening of bilateral relations will be proceed at an accelerated pace.

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