History Lessons for China and Japan
Image Credit: REUTERS/Aly Song

History Lessons for China and Japan


This year has seen a spate of retrospective analyses of the horrific war in Europe that began July 28 a century ago, so named the Great War for its unprecedented scale, death count, and destabilizing aftershocks reverberating as far as Asia. How this could have happened, should Britain have entered the war at all, and what was the ultimate meaning of the war are still the stuff of intense controversy and debate. The Britain-Japan-China part of the story, a sidelight to the war engulfing Europe, has gotten less attention. Yet it, too, begs for further explanation of policy choices and cascading consequences that led to a disastrous turn in East Asian politics in the decades to follow.

Britain and Japan in 1914 were linked by treaty obligations under the Anglo-Japanese Alliance (1902-1923), the first-ever reciprocal agreement between a Western and an Asian power. The relationship was already showing signs of strain, chiefly over access to the vast China market, but growing distrust took second place to immediate political calculations: for Britain, the promise of Japanese assistance to counter German naval power in the Pacific, on Japan’s part, assurances of British support in the takeover of German-leased territory in China. On these terms, Japan declared war on Germany just a few weeks after Britain decided to intervene on the side of France and Russia in early August. The payoff to Britain from its Asian ally came not in the Pacific but in the Mediterranean, where in 1917 Japanese destroyers provided protection to British merchant shipping. Japan reaped its reward in 1919 when the dealmakers at the Versailles Peace Conference recognized Japan’s claims to former German holdings in China, news that triggered widespread Chinese protests in early May. Indeed, in China May 7 became popularly known as “National Humiliation Day.”

For Chinese looking backward from the year 2014, the centenary message of the rush to war in Europe, Japanese expansion in China, and final victor’s justice are only part of the story. As the Chinese public is well aware, 2014 also marks the 120th anniversary of China’s quick defeat by Japan in the First Sino-Japanese War, a war between two emerging powers over control of Korea. The juxtaposition of dates carries peculiar symbolic force in the Chinese context. The years 1894 and 2014 in the traditional Chinese calendar share the distinction of being “jiawu” years, a once in 60 year occurrence, hence the suggestion by some in the official media that humiliation of a weak China then should and could be avenged by a strong China now. At a time of sharp tensions between China and Japan over claims to the Diaoyu/Senkakus and Yasukuni Shrine visits, occasional calls for what a U.S. navy official termed a “short, sharp war” against Japan play well with a certain segment of the Chinese public (for instance, see this analysis of the Weibo response).

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Beginning in early March of this year, China’s official Xinhua News Agency published a series of articles by 28 top military experts in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) on what China should learn from its defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War. Surprisingly, given the tenor of the times, these assessments are not preoccupied with the humiliation theme or Japanese wartime aggression. The focal point instead is on Chinese shortcomings, cultural and political, in the late nineteenth-century and by extension now: mainly a failure of will in carrying out reforms, lack of innovative thinking, and corruption throughout the state system. China had the necessary military hardware but failed to use it well is the blunt conclusion. Or, as one writer puts it in comparative terms, Meiji Japan’s Westernization drive worked and Qing China’s did not. In fact, contemporary Western observers of this first contest between the two modernizing Asian militaries saw things the same way. They had expected China to win.

Clearly, Xinhua’s 2014 retrospective on the 1894 war is intended not as a deep analysis of the past so much as a sharp reminder to present-day elites in China about the perils of failing to carry out comprehensive reforms. But it’s worth noting that insofar as Japan does figure into these “lessons learned” articles, it’s solely Japan as a military power. True, military strengthening was a vital part of Japan’s reform agenda after 1868, as it was in late 19th century China. Indeed, Japan’s fukoku kyōhei (wealthy country, strong military) slogan, the rallying cry behind the Meiji package of reforms, was the exact equivalent of China’s fuguo qiangping, the subject of Orville Schell’s eloquent book Wealth and Power – and derived from the same ancient Chinese phrase.

What the PLA experts gloss over completely, however, is that Meiji Japan was about much more than military strengthening. Modernization of the military was only a part of a broader phenomenon: the conscious importation from Europe and America of a wide range of institutions and ideas that were reworked and transformed in the Japanese setting. This included profound changes in such key areas as the rule of law, constitutional government, women’s rights, and the biggest of Meiji Japan’s achievements, construction from the ground up of a national system of schools. It was this Japan, Asia’s first late-developing country, with its evident innovative capacity that caught the attention of the Chinese leadership at the turn of the last century. Over the next decade and more, with Japanese encouragement and Chinese receptivity, a series of exchange programs went into high gear: 10,000 Chinese students studying in Tokyo, 1,000 Chinese officials visiting Tokyo on short-term study tours, and 600 Japanese teachers and advisers working in China, most as paid employees of the Chinese government. These efforts contributed in concrete, lasting ways to more efficiently-run institutions in China. Chinese-Japanese partnership, rational in approach, showed some potential for success before its ultimate collapse in a welter of political complexities. Contrary to the view promoted in China’s official media these days, China-Japan relations were not always confrontational.

Remembering the past through fateful dates is useful if its purpose is not to affix easy labels such as “militarism” for all time, but to re-examine choices, trends and outcomes based on new evidence and interpretations as a guide to future decision making. In this sense, the year 2015 will undoubtedly be scrutinized from different angles, Chinese and Japanese. It will be one-hundred years since Japan issued its 21 Demands to China, an outrageous policy blunder that enflamed Chinese anti-Japanese sentiment and eroded the trust of Japan’s Western allies. But 2015 also marks the anniversary of the end of World War II in Asia and the start of a 70-year period when a peaceful Japan and mutually beneficial China-Japan ties have been the norm. Which date to focus on, 1915 or 1945, is a matter of choice.

Over the past few months, amid a constant volley of provocations between the world’s second and third largest economies, there are hopeful signs that senior officials on both sides want to rescue the relationship from its collision course. In early April, Hu Deping, son of the late reform-minded leader Hu Yaobang and close confidante of President Xi Jinping, made a trip to Tokyo where he held talks with former high ranking officials in the Japanese Foreign Ministry. At the end of his visit he met informally with Prime Minister Abe Shinzo. As Party general secretary in the 1980s, Hu senior emphasized the urgency of improved ties with Japan, a message the younger Hu repeated in his conversations in Tokyo.

Hu Deping’s overture was followed by a second high-level exchange, this at the end of April in Beijing between the governor of Tokyo and Beijing’s mayor. According to press reports these meetings set the basis for further consultations in two key areas: managing an Olympic games, of interest to Japan as it prepares for 2020, and overcoming air pollution, a problem Japan dealt with in the 1970s and a pressing concern for China today. Notably, for all the angry rhetoric flying about on the islands dispute, the sober-minded China-Japan-South Korea environmental forum convened on schedule this year as it has every year since 1999. And the focus of the meeting, held in Daegu, South Korea on April 29, was on trilateral cooperation. Top officials from the three environmental agencies issued a joint statement affirming their commitment to work together to address common problems of pollution and environmental degradation, most urgently, the worsening PM2.5 problem. The atmosphere of “cold politics” between Japan and its neighbors posed no obstacle to continuing trilateral trade talks either. On May 13, China, Japan and Korea signed an investment agreement expected to ease the way to a formal free trade agreement (FTA) later in the year.

An underlying goal of these official exchanges – and presumably many more through back channels – has been to lay the groundwork for Xi/Abe talks on the sidelines of the critical Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit planned for November 2014 in Beijing. Reportedly, senior Japanese politicians conveyed an explicit offer from Abe along these lines when they met with Xi administration officials in Beijing May 5. A short exchange between Chinese and Japanese trade ministers at an APEC preparatory session in Qingdao, China May 17-18 moved the process another step forward. As in the case of the 2008 Olympics, Beijing very likely sees an incident-free event as essential to its image as regional and world leader.

For all the subtle signs of contacts-as-usual and input from the pragmatic-minded, “dispute news” continues, and assertions of Chinese dominance at the end-May defense meetings in Singapore (Shangri-La Dialogue) indicate continued toughness, at least from military planners. At the same time, Chinese and Japanese business leaders have been increasingly vocal about the need to dial back tensions and get the relationship back on the win-win track of economic cooperation. This was the message coming out of the early June meeting of the China-Japan Asia CEO Forum, a gathering of 60 businessmen from China, Japan, Singapore and Thailand held in Tokyo. “Built-to-last,” read the banner behind the speaker’s podium, “China, Japan and the New Asian Era.”  At a meeting of the New Japan-China Friendship Committee going on simultaneously in Nagasaki, former Chinese State Councilor Tang Jiaxuan not unexpectedly scolded Tokyo for its intransigence, but announced that current tensions were “only temporary,” a theme he has been promoting for several years now. More important than words are deeds. The first week in June Nissan and its Chinese partner Dongfeng Motors announced a restart of their Infiniti plant construction project in Dalian, delayed in the climate of tensions after 2012. Another Nissan Dongfeng joint venture is expected to roll out electric vehicles for the China market later this year.

So 2015 could open on a more positive note. There are good reasons to try to repair the relationship. China and Japan remain enormously important to each other, economically interdependent, geographically close, and sharing anxieties regarding air pollution and energy shortfalls, not to speak of the threat of a chronically unstable North Korea. With anti-Chinese protests boiling up in Vietnam and Myanmar, new pushback from the U.S. on cyber hacking, and possibly new India-U.S.-Japan alignments, China might find it sensible to tone down the rhetoric on Japan, at least temporarily. Certainly it’s in Japan’s interests to defuse tensions with its powerful, fast-expanding neighbor in East Asia. Using cross-border pollution problems as well as energy conservation as starting points for cooperation has considerable merit.

At the same time, restoring China-Japan relations to the better place they were from the 1950s to the 1980s or even three years ago presents a real challenge. As Amy King points out in her excellent article in The Asan Forum, Japan simply doesn’t count for much these days in China’s long-term strategic thinking about great power relations. The accepted notion is that in broad historical terms, Japan is on the decline so that with time and pressure the sovereignty issues will be resolved in China’s favor. On the more immediate sticking point of coming to a common understanding of Japan’s wartime role, some creative voices are being heard. Professor Kiichi Fujiwara of Tokyo University proposes making 2015, the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, a breakthrough year on the “historical legacy” front, with visits by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Nanjing, site of the worst of Japanese atrocities, and President Xi Jinping to Hiroshima in recognition of the fact that the Japanese people, too, suffered during wartime. Whether the Chinese and Japanese publics are ready to accept such dramatic gestures is a question.

On balance, 2015 seems to be shaping up as a pivotal year for bilateral ties. While underlying disputes over territorial claims and historical narratives will undoubtedly persist, there is room for compromise on a host of issues of common interest from trade policies to joint ventures to air pollution. The best possible outcome is that the pragmatists prevail and 2015 becomes the centennial of a new structure of accommodation between China and Japan.

Paula Harrell currently teaches at Georgetown University and is the author of Asia for the Asians: China in the Lives of Five Meiji Japanese

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