Commentary / Japan

China's Japan-bashing: Is there any hope for goodwill?

by John West

The Globalist

China is at it again, bashing Japan, its favorite whipping boy. But as China regularly whips itself up into frenzy over Japan, it is perhaps easy to forget that China’s modern anti-Japanese sentiment is only a recent phenomenon.

China’s bashing this time round is because of new laws that will allow the Self Defense Forces (SDF) to engage in collective self-defense.

The laws, pushed through the Diet by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, allow the SDF to help allies like the United States who may be at war, help keep sea lanes open, participate in peacekeeping activities around the world and attempt hostage rescues by armed means.

This new collective self-defense initiative, strongly supported by the United States government, amounts to a reinterpretation of Japan’s postwar pacifist Constitution which prohibits it from using force to resolve conflicts except in cases of self-defense.

While the majority of Japanese citizens are reportedly against collective self-defense, this initiative represents a very modest expansion of the role of the SDF in the direction of Japan becoming a “normal country.”

Nevertheless, the Chinese government reacted with predictable hostility. The country’s Defense Ministry said the laws “run counter to the trend of the times that upholds peace, development and cooperation.”

And China’s Foreign Ministry urged Japan to “take seriously the security concerns of its Asian neighbors,” and “act with discretion on military and security issues.”

The Chinese official news agency Xinhua said “Japan’s military stance has potentially become more dangerous.”

This is the same Chinese government that increased its military spending by 167 percent between 2005 and 2014. Its military spending of $216 billion in 2014 was almost five times that of Japan’s $46 billion, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

It is also the same Chinese government that held a giant military parade at Tiananmen Square on Sept. 3 on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.

The point of the event was to show off to the world its new military equipment, including the DF-21D, the so-called “carrier killer” anti-ship ballistic missile.

The Chinese government also made clear that it was not happy with Abe’s speech in mid-August on the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.

In short, China has a very big case of anti-Japanese sentiment. This is in sharp contrast to the reconciliation that Japan has managed to achieve with other wartime enemies like the United States, Australia, the Philippines and Singapore.

President Barack Obama and Abe recently said that “the relationship between our two countries over the last 70 years stands as a model of the power of reconciliation.”

Without seeking to minimize the atrocities that the Imperial Japanese Army inflicted on China, nor the legalistic and sometimes ambiguous nature of Japanese apologies, it is important to understand the history of anti-Japanese sentiment in China, drawing on the work of historians like Ezra Vogel.

During the 1970s and 1980s, China and Japan actually had good relations. In 1972, Mao Zedong accepted Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka’s apologies for Japan’s wartime aggression, and expressed gratitude for Japan’s help in defeating Chiang Kaishek’s Kuomintang.

And following Deng Xiaoping’s historic visit to Japan in 1978, relations between the two countries improved greatly. Japan played a key role in the takeoff of the backward Chinese economy by offering financial assistance, corporate investments and technology transfer.

But things changed quickly after the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident, even though Japan was the first country to restore high-level relations with China following the diplomatic rupture with advanced countries.

One lesson that the Chinese leadership drew from the Tiananmen Square incident was that the Communist Party needed to make greater efforts to promote nationalism to improve support for the party.

So under China’s next leader, Jiang Zemin, China embarked on a massive campaign of patriotic education. Students and citizens were taught how the Communist Party was leading China’s recovery from its “century of humiliation” (from the opium wars to the end of the civil war in 1949).

At the heart of this patriotic education was anti-Japanese propaganda, since Japan was the country that inflicted the most suffering on China.

But other factors weakened Beijing’s burgeoning friendship with Tokyo. With the end of the Cold War, fall of the Berlin Wall and dissolution of the Soviet Union, China and Japan lost a common enemy that had helped to unite them.

With its rapid development, China increasingly believed that it had less need for Japanese aid, investment and technology. More recently, with President Xi Jinping’s assertive leadership, relations have flared up over the disputed Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu in Chinese).

The official anti-Japanese campaign has left deep scars, as academic Minxin Pei has argued: “Chinese state media and history textbooks have fed the younger generation such a diet of distorted, jingoistic facts, outright lies and nationalistic myths that it is easy to provoke anti-Western or anti-Japanese sentiments.”

Is there any hope that China and Japan could bury the hatchet and have friendly relations?

It is very difficult to see a positive way out in the immediate future, even though it is ultimately in the interest of both countries to have good relations.

The Chinese government has invested so much political energy in its anti-Japan propaganda that it would be difficult for it to back down. With China’s shaky economy and obvious political fragility, we are likely to see more, not less, Chinese nationalism.

And China’s anti-Japan propaganda has also emboldened Japan’s right wing, which seeks to minimize Japanese wartime atrocities. It is also fostering “apology fatigue,” especially among Japanese citizens born after the war.

Over the past year, there has been some softening of the rhetoric between the two countries. They realize the economic costs of the “war of words,” especially as Japanese investment in China has fallen dramatically over the past two years.

Both leaders have met at international events. And there is now even talk of Abe making an official visit to China.

But it will likely require generational change in both countries and democracy and freedom of the press in China for real reconciliation to ever take place between the two countries.

As this will take a very long time, Asian neighbors and indeed the whole world must stay prepared for Northeast Asia remaining one of the world’s political hot spots.

John West is executive director of the Asian Century Institute, which conducts research and analysis and participates in policy dialogues to foster a better understanding of the opportunities and challenges of the “Asian Century.”