HONG KONG - Three years ago, China for the first time observed a National Memorial Day to mark the anniversary of the Nanjing massacre of 1937 when, according to Beijing, 300,000 civilians and unarmed soldiers were killed by the Imperial Japanese Army.
On Dec. 13, 2014, President Xi Jinping warned Japan in his address at the Nanjing ceremony: “History will not be altered as time changes, and facts will not disappear because of any chicanery or denials.” That is to say, the Japanese government cannot evade responsibility for events that occurred before most of the Japanese people alive today were even born.
The proclamation of the national memorial day, together with the announcement of observing Sept. 3 as Victory Over Japan Day, came almost seven decades after the war ended. The actions seemed overtly political, enabling China to occupy the moral high ground in bilateral relations. Since Xi became China’s leader in 2012, Sino-Japanese relations have deteriorated dramatically.
But there are now signs of a turn for the better. Last week, to mark the 80th anniversary of the Nanjing massacre, Xi, while present, did not speak. But Yu Zhengsheng, head of China’s top advisory body, delivered a major speech with implications for Sino-Japanese relations. Instead of simply recalling the past, Yu looked to the future and suggested a period of better relations between China and Japan.
Both countries, Yu said, should “learn from history and face the future, continue to be friends for generations, and jointly contribute to world peace.” Xi’s presence made it clear that the Yu speech represented the position of the Chinese government.
Language such as “friends for generations” recalls the visit to China by Emperor Akihito in 1992, when he was welcomed everywhere, and Chinese talked about eternal friendship with Japan
Recently, Chinese officials have focused on other anniversaries, not just that of the Nanjing massacre. Foreign Minister Wang Yi has pointed out that this year marks the 45th anniversary of the normalization of China-Japan relations, and next year will be the 40th anniversary of the signing of a peace and friendship treaty between the two countries.
“We are ready to work with Japan to bring the bilateral relation back to normal at an early date and make friendship prevail again in our engagement,” Wang said in a Dec. 10 speech.
On the Japanese side, too, there is a serious desire to improve the relationship, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pressing for an agreement for reciprocal visits by leaders of the two countries. While China has not responded publicly, it has not ruled out such a possibility.
The relationship has improved in recent months in part because no new major issues have arisen over the last year and both countries have, to some extent, been focused on the North Korean nuclear crisis.
Xi and Abe both have recently been reconfirmed as national leaders and so are more confident in reaching out to the other side without too much fear of a domestic backlash.
China in particular is faced with a situation where it has strained relations with virtually all of its key neighbors except Russia.
Many of these neighbors, such as Japan, India and Vietnam, have forged relations with each other in the face of a China that is developing rapidly not only economically but also militarily.
Four countries, Japan, India, Australia and the United States, have formed a “Quad,” which held its first meeting last month, whose purpose evidently is to jointly deal with a new regional hegemon.
Both China and Japan are aware of the international political realities. While working to improve relations in terms of trade and diplomacy, each is aware of what the other side is doing to enhance its own national interests.
Thus, Japan is likely to keep its guard up vis-a-vis China and will continue to upgrade its military, insist on its sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands, which Beijing calls the Diaoyu Islands, and enhance ties with like-minded countries. Tokyo has just agreed with Britain on joint research in developing missiles for fighter jets, its first such venture that doesn’t involve the United States.
China, too, won’t give ground on its territorial claims and is likely to continue to send ships and planes into areas considered by Japan to be its territorial sea and airspace. However, the two will seek to manage their differences better so as to avoid unintended clashes in the East China Sea.
Thus, while both sides want an improved relationship, they will be walking into it with their eyes wide open. There is likely to be greater cordiality in the relationship, but not necessarily greater trust.
Frank Ching is a veteran American journalist and commentator based in Hong Kong who frequently writes on issues related to China. His email address is: Frank.firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @FrankChing1