Relations between Japan and China remain in a deep freeze and there is no prospect for improvement any time soon. Symbolic of this is the seizure of a Japanese ship by Chinese authorities over the weekend in connection with a commercial dispute dating back to 1936. It’s safe to say that this action — the first of its kind in the postwar period — is a product of the dire state of Japan-China ties.
Bilateral ties have been deteriorating since the bilateral territorial row over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea intensified following the purchase of three islets by the Japanese government in September 2012. The Senkakus dispute has rekindled issues related to perception of modern history involving Japan and China, especially Japan’s wartime aggression.
Since then, actions and words by the two countries’ leaders caused chilly ties to grow even more frigid. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s December visit to Yasukuni Shrine, which enshrines not only the nation’s 2.34 million war dead but also Class-A war criminals, invited harsh criticism from China. During his March visit to Germany, Chinese President Xi Jinping stated that Japanese troops had massacred more than 300,000 people in Nanjing in 1937, prompting Tokyo to accuse him of making “extremely unproductive” remarks in a third country. Japanese and Chinese leaders must make concerted efforts to stop these actions, which are taking a destructive toll on bilateral ties, and focus on repairing the damage.
The tense bilateral relationship has raised security tensions in Northeast Asia and damaged business ties between the world’s second- and third-largest economies. It appears that both Abe and Xi are fanning nationalism in an attempt to beef up their domestic power bases, and are even trying to use strained ties as a pretext for changing security and defense policies. This is extremely dangerous and unwise behavior for leaders of the region’s leading powers to engage in. They should remember that friendly ties not only benefit their own countries but also contribute to regional and global peace and prosperity. Both leaders must consider this point when they make decisions and take actions that can affect bilateral ties.
China considers Abe to be a dangerous leader who refuses to accept that Japan carried out wars of aggression against its Asian neighbors in the 1930s and ’40s, and that his revisionist views are fueling his effort to revise or reinterpret the Constitution to enable Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defense. Among the remarks made by Abe that have reinforced China’s perception of him include statements he made in the Diet in 2013 that in the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, the Allied powers convicted Japanese wartime leaders from the viewpoint of a victor, and that he did not accept in its entirety the Aug. 15, 1995, statement by Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, in which he apologized for the “tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries, particularly to those of Asian nations” caused by Japan’s wartime aggression and colonial rule.
In recent months, Abe has tamed his hawkish views on historical issues — apparently in response to growing wariness in the United States over Japan’s increasingly troubled ties with South Korea, which has also taken offense at the prime minister’s statements. In March, Abe told the Diet that he accepted the view of preceding Cabinets that Japan caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of Asian nations and that he never had denied Japan’s wartime aggression and colonial rule. He also said that he will not change the 1993 statement by then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono, which acknowledged the Japanese military’s involvement in the recruitment of Asian women forced into sexual servitude for troops of the Imperial Japanese armed forces in Japan’s wars in the 1930s and ’40s. Abe also refrained from visiting Yasukuni Shrine for its spring festival, although he offered a ceremonial tree to the shrine. But the prime minister needs to show that this change in his sentiment is firmly based on a sense of remorse over Japan’s modern war rather than political expediency.
China, for its part, has taken steps that could be construed as deliberate acts to provoke Japan. In February, Beijing decided to designate Sept. 3 as Victory Day of the Chinese People’s War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression and Dec. 13 as a “national memorial day to commemorate those killed by Japanese aggressors during the Nanjing Massacre.”
In March, the Beijing No. 1 Intermediate People’s Court decided to hear a lawsuit filed by 40 Chinese who demand compensation from two Japanese companies for forced labor during World War II — the first time that a Chinese court has agreed to hear such a case.
The court’s move apparently reflects the Chinese leadership’s decision to use such lawsuits as a political weapon against Japan, which takes the position that China gave up its right to seek war-related damages when Tokyo and Beijing normalized diplomatic relationship in 1972. After the Beijing court’s decision, similar lawsuits followed. These lawsuits together with the April 19 seizure of the vessel owned by Mitsui O.S.K. Lines will no doubt raise alarms for Japanese companies doing business in China. As Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida has rightly stated,because these things are happening, dialogue between Japan and China is all the more important.
The longer bilateral relations remain strained, the greater the damage to both countries as well as to the region’s security outlook and economic prospects. It’s high time leaders of both countries stopped fanning the flames of narrow-minded nationalism and started talking to each other in an effort to put Japan-China relations back on track.
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