Tokyo Report

45 Years of Normalized Sino-Japanese Diplomacy

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Tokyo Report

45 Years of Normalized Sino-Japanese Diplomacy

Reflections on bilateral relations and an outlook for the future

45 Years of Normalized Sino-Japanese Diplomacy
Credit: REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

On September 29, 1972, Japan normalized diplomatic relations with China. It has now been forty-five years since that milestone, and bilateral relations have seen some colossal changes. Over the years, documents have been prepared to accommodate those changes: the China-Japan Treaty of Peace and Friendship of 1978, the China-Japan Joint Declaration of 1998, and the China-Japan Joint Statement on Comprehensive Promotion of a “Mutually Beneficial Relationship Based on Common Strategic Interests,” which was issued in 2008. Together with the China-Japan Joint statement of 1972, these constitute the so-called four basic documents of Sino-Japanese relations. Adding to them is the four-point consensus recently agreed between the Shinzo Abe and Xi Jinping administrations, another document seen as outlining the basic provisions for diplomatic ties between China and Japan.

Diplomatic relations between the two Asian powers have changed markedly over the course of the past 45 years. For one thing, the point in 2010 when China’s GDP exceeded that of Japan was surely a significant moment. Although Japan’s GDP per capita still exceeds that of China, there is clearly a limit to the growth of Japan’s economic power, and the difference in per capita GDP between China and Japan will continue to shrink for the foreseeable future. This has given the impression of a shift in the balance of power between the two countries.

Second, there are the changes that have taken place in the international environment. The normalization of Chinese-Japanese relations came during the Cold War. As an internal conflict began to occur within the Eastern Bloc between China and the Soviet Union (USSR), China began to reach out the United States; a development which in some aspects also served to encourage the normalization of diplomatic relations with Japan. Later, the Cold War drew to an end and the USSR was dismantled, but in East Asia, the United States and China faced off, drawing their dividing lines across the Korean Peninsula and the Taiwan Strait.

Third, there have been changes in the domestic situations and inter-societal relations between the two countries. At the time of the normalization of China-Japan relations in 1972, even acknowledging that the limits of Japan’s rapid economic growth was becoming apparent, Japanese society was still enjoying robust economic development, and the general ideology of Japanese intellectuals was either leftist or liberal. Feelings towards China were rather positive, and in fact reached their highest point during the 1980s. Today, however, values in Japanese society have greatly diversified, and social thinking has become quite conservative in comparison with the past.

The changes in China may be even more marked. In 1972, China was in the midst of its Cultural Revolution. Why was it necessary for China to approach the capitalist United States, or to normalize diplomatic relations with Japan? By presenting policies and persuading the public, the state and Communist Party were able to conduct a foreign policy that differed in logic from its domestic policies. In modern day Chinese society, however, with its increasing wealth and improving quality of life, the views of Chinese people have rapidly diversified, and the relationship between the state and society has changed. It can be said that society has ceased to function based solely on state and party policies. Conversely, one could argue that state and party propaganda actually have too much influence over the people – even more than intended – and that they are limiting the range of choices available to the state and/or party with regard to foreign policy.

There are countless other differences, and it was in response to these changes that the four basic documents of China-Japan diplomacy listed above were created. However, if one is asked whether or not these four documents – and the additional four-point consensus – alone are functioning sufficiently as the fundamental basis for Chinese-Japanese relations, it is not easy to answer in the affirmative. The two biggest problems are as follows.

First, there is the point that, although China and Japan have built a tight economic relationship, they have an essentially confrontational dynamic in the security domain. This is a phenomenon that is distinctly East Asian in character. That is to say that, even after the end of the Cold War, nothing reminiscent of the expansion of NATO in Europe has taken place in this region. The dividing lines across the Korean Peninsula and the Taiwan Strait have been maintained as lines of confrontation with respect to security issues, and the face-off between the socialist and free-world blocs in terms of security policy continues. In the present day, history, territorial issues and the sovereignty of Taiwan are the three greatest concerns between China and Japan. It goes without saying, however, that these problems are closely related to the confrontational relationship between the two countries in terms of security aspects.

Second, there is the problem of popular sentiment among the people of the two countries. The feelings of people in both China and Japan towards one another have deteriorated to appalling levels, and more than 80 percent of people in either country neither trust nor have favorable feelings towards those in the other. This state of affairs began to gradually emerge during the 1990s, and became more strongly pronounced as we entered the 21st century. Simply put, there was a shift in the balance of power between the two countries, and the cause of this change in attitudes was that both Japan (as it was being overtaken) and China (as it was doing the overtaking) experienced changes in self-image, and in the way they saw one another. People on both sides became unable to accept the way they saw one another. This worsening of popular sentiment influenced the respective governments, as a reflection of the will of the people, and began to limit the range of policy choices available to those governments.

If there is one thing with the potential to break through the current state of affairs it is surely this second point. Recent years have seen a gradual uptick in mutual sentiment taking place, centering primarily around the younger generation of Chinese and Japanese, and this is one promising aspect. This does not mean, however, that we should simply advance civil exchanges and mutual understanding in an aimless, desultory manner. First, it is important for both China and Japan to drive forward civil exchanges in some form that is not influenced by a political agenda. The history of Sino-Japanese relations is replete with civil exchange projects. But when political tensions have run high, these civil exchanges have been quickly cancelled or postponed, diluting their very meaning and significance.

It can also be seen – from their effects – that the so-called “friendly exchanges” that we have relied on since the normalization of Chinese-Japan diplomacy 45 years ago have their limits. There are several hundred friendly exchange organizations in Japan which play a role in facilitating these amicable exchanges, but many of them are facing problems brought about by aging. The people who have driven these exchanges in the past are continuing the movement, but they are not absorbing and involving the younger generation of Japanese. Viewed by age, the generation of Japanese with the worst anti-Chinese sentiments are those in their 60s. These are followed by those in their 50s, and those in their 70s. Conversely, the generations of Japanese with the most positive feelings towards China are those in their 20s and 30s. However, the people who are engaging in friendly exchange activities are not the younger generation, but rather the elderly demographic. This is a serious problem. The question of to what extent we can implement civil exchanges that cater to today’s diversified society and involve the younger demographic will be a major challenge for the future.

There is, however, one final point to be made here. The greatest change over these past 45 years has been the growth and expansion of civil relations. The number of visitors traveling from China to Japan (and vice-versa) has increased dramatically, and daily interactions have become extremely close in terms of economic relations, tourism and other aspects. Interaction between Chinese and Japanese researchers has also become commonplace. In Japan in particular, it is now becoming common to see children of Chinese ethnicity in classes at kindergarten or elementary school. The same is true of universities, and they are not merely overseas students studying in the country temporarily. The number of ethnic Chinese residents raised in Japan is growing rapidly. Amid these new social phenomena, we should make the effort to see if we can’t perhaps discover a new path for Chinese-Japanese relations in the future.

Shin Kawashima is a professor at the University of Tokyo.