Japan and China will soon observe the 30th anniversary of their normalization of relations, which took place Sept. 29, 1972. The bilateral relationship was placed on a solid foundation with the conclusion of a treaty of peace and friendship in 1978. Economic relations have since dramatically expanded.

In the initial stages, the major theme of the bilateral relationship was “peace and friendship.” Today, however, the two countries are concentrating on promoting more pragmatic cooperation.

Yet there are a number of uncertainties overshadowing Japan and China, such as differences in historical perceptions and political frictions over Taiwan. Moreover, as China increases its military might and deepens its economic influence in Southeast Asia, a growing number of Japanese have begun to regard China as a threat.

The state of future relations between the two countries will depend to a large extent on how each country responds to changes in international affairs, including the rapprochement between the United States and China following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the move toward normalizing relations between Japan and North Korea prompted by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s visit to Pyongyang and the struggle for leadership between Tokyo and Beijing on economic integration with Southeast Asia.

High-level strategic dialogue is essential to promoting the Sino-Japanese relationship on a sustainable basis.

The situation in East Asia is dramatically changing. Japanese-North Korean moves to begin normalizing relations are bound to have a major impact on Pyongyang’s relations with Washington and Seoul. Let us hope they also help facilitate the process of Korean reunification.

Starting in the 19th century, the Koreans fell victim to a Chinese-Russian-Japanese struggle for hegemony. In the Korean War, the U.S. and China fought each other on the Peninsula. Regardless of how the two Koreas approach the reunification issue, peace and stability cannot be achieved on the Peninsula unless consensus takes place not only between Seoul and Pyongyang but also among Japan, the U.S., China and Russia. For that reason, dialogue between Tokyo and Beijing is indispensable to East Asian security.

A Sino-Japanese race to achieve economic integration with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has emerged. Seeking to conclude a free-trade agreement with ASEAN, China used the occasion of the conference of economic ministers held in Brunei on Sept. 13 to agree to lower import duties on certain agricultural products from 2004 and thereafter to abolish all tariffs within three years.

Meanwhile, Japan has agreed to enter into a comprehensive economic collaboration arrangement with ASEAN, including a free-trade agreement within 10 years. But Tokyo lags behind Beijing in economic integration with ASEAN because of opposition in Japan to liberalizing imports of agricultural products. This stems from the lack of a Japanese national strategy on economic integration with its Asian neighbors.

The Sino-Japanese relationship is marked by an imbalance in economic and political ties. China is Japan’s second largest trading partner after the U.S., and Japan is China’s largest trading partner. In 2001, bilateral commerce reached $89.1 billion — nearly 100 times the prenormalization figure of $900 million in 1971.

The Japanese-Chinese trade relationship has not been free of friction, however. Tokyo implemented an emergency measure last year to stem a sharp increase in the import of Chinese agricultural products. Beijing countered by imposing a 100-percent special tariff on automobiles and other Japanese products.

At the Asia Forum meeting held in Hainan last April, Koizumi stated that he did not regard China’s economic development as a threat to Japan and said the two countries could strengthen their mutually complementary relationship. Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji hailed his statements as a contribution to the promotion of friendly relations between the two countries.

As they met face to face, the two prime ministers agreed to establish the Council for Japanese-Chinese Economic Partnership to further promote bilateral dialogue, thus establishing a cooperative framework on a practical level.

Nevertheless, bilateral relations have always been marred by political discord stemming from differing views of history and Taiwan. When Koizumi visited Yasukuni Shrine shortly after the Asian Forum meeting in Hainan, Chinese President Jiang Zemin issued an unusually strong statement condemning the visit as absolutely intolerable.

A retired senior Chinese diplomat who has been involved in bilateral relations for more than half a century warned at a Tokyo symposium in May that discord over these issues could threaten the political foundation of Sino-Japanese ties.

In a multiple-choice survey of the Japanese people conducted by the Foreign Ministry in March, 48 percent of the respondents chose trade friction and other economic issues as a principal problem for Japan and China, while 44 percent cited differences in historical perceptions. Those who thought China would become a threat to Japan in the future accounted for 39 percent, while another 18 percent said China is already a threat, far outnumbering the 10 percent who thought China would not become a threat. This indicates Japanese fear of China’s growing influence.

A former high-ranking Japanese government official who is well versed in Chinese affairs has stated, “China takes a positive view on its relations with Japan, believing that the two countries will overcome problems relating to differences in historical perception and cooperate in a growing number of areas both politically and economically.” He emphasized the importance of promoting dialogue, however, by saying, “Without further dialogue, there is a danger of the two countries engaging in a struggle for hegemony over Asian markets.”

It is imperative that the relationship between Japan and China be mutually beneficial. While maintaining relations with the U.S. as the foundation of its diplomacy, Japan must enhance bilateral ties with China by continuously engaging in high-level strategic dialogue on issues involving security and Asia’s economic integration.

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