A number of symposia were held to coincide with the recent 50th anniversary of the Normalization of Diplomatic Relations between Japan and China. Although direct access between Japan and China is limited, quite a few online meetings took place. Almost invariably, at each meeting the Chinese side would call for a return to the “origin” of the normalization of diplomatic relations. Responding, the Japanese participants would instead propose the establishment of a new Japan-China relationship based on current realities. Their Chinese interlocutors would be unimpressed.
This is a recent phenomenon. A few years ago, back when ties were on the upswing, such as during former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s visit in October 2018, China too would suggest that the two countries seek a new relationship based on current circumstances and even hint at the drafting of a fifth political document. At that time, for the Japan side, improving ties with China did not simply mean friendly relations but rather improving them to the extent that it would be possible to once again have summit exchanges, reversing the sharp deterioration that had taken place over the Senkaku Islands and other issues. Tokyo was less enthusiastic about coming up with a fifth political document.
Since then, things have changed markedly. The COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine are of course major factors. The pandemic has drastically reduced direct exchanges between Japan and China, such as tourism, and has fueled anti-Japanese sentiment in China. President Xi Jinping’s scheduled visit to Japan in April 2020 was postponed, and now no longer even appears to be on the agenda. As for the war in Ukraine, the Japanese government joined the sanctions against Russia together with other developed countries, identifying China and Russia as countries that are ready to “change the status quo by force.” Bearing in mind the antagonism that China and Russia feel towards the West, Japan will seek to act in concert with the United States and other developed countries on values-related issues and Taiwan. In fact, China has intensified its military activities around Taiwan during the pandemic, ratcheting up the pressure on the Tsai Ing-wen administration. While bolstering its military capabilities with an eye to the liberation of Taiwan, it has raised the level of its unification efforts several notches. In Japan, meanwhile, there is now frequent talk of a “Taiwan emergency.”
Meanwhile, the Taiwanese government has been sending positive signals to Japan. When Abe was assassinated, flags were lowered to half-mast at Taiwanese public institutions and elsewhere. On September 29, visa-free travel was resumed. September 29 marks the 50th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic relations as well as the 50th anniversary of the breaking off of diplomatic relations between Japan and Taiwan. Taiwan is deliberately sending positive signals to Japan on this anniversary. While activities related to the 50th anniversary between Japan and China have cooled considerably, the messages from Taiwan are having an effect on Japanese society.
From Beijing’s perspective, any warming of Japan-Taiwan relations is problematic. China is always wary of foreign aggression and infiltration and sees closer ties as a plot to spark a color revolution. Fear of a color revolution in Hong Kong was one of the reasons the Xi administration introduced the national security law there. China also thinks that foreign influence is being directed at Taiwan. Behind the Tsai administration it sees the United States and Japan. Beijing views the Tsai administration and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) as agents for independence, and has begun to criticize Tsai Ing-wen and anyone approaching the DPP. This is the reason why the recent visit to Taiwan by the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi was such an issue, in a way that similar visits had never been before.
China perceives Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen administration as seeking independence and sees it as fundamentally not able to share the principle of “one-China.” For that reason alone, Beijing has become extremely sensitive to the Taiwan policies of the United States and Japan. China has called on Japan to comply with the Joint Communique, published at the time of the normalizing of diplomatic relations between the two countries in September 1972. The communique states that “The Government of the People’s Republic of China reiterates that Taiwan is an inalienable part of the territory of the People’s Republic of China. The Government of Japan fully understands and respects this stand of the Government of the People’s Republic of China, and it firmly maintains its stand under Article 8 of the Postsdam Proclamation.” The Japanese side has focused on the words “understands” and “respects” and has positioned its Taiwan policy with somewhat shifting interpretations of this language. However, the Chinese focus on the part “firmly maintains its stand under Article 8 of the Postsdam Proclamation,” and demand that Japan do just that. Article 8 of the Postsdam Proclamation reads “The terms of the Cairo Declaration shall be carried out and Japanese sovereignty shall be limited to the islands of Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, Shikoku and such minor islands as we determine,” while the relevant part of the Cairo Declaration states that “all the territories Japan has stolen from the Chinese, such as Manchuria, Formosa, and The Pescadores, shall be restored to the Republic of China.” There are different interpretations of this text, but China claims that Japan has already recognized Taiwan as Chinese territory (then Republic of China). This is likely what China refers to as the “origin” of the normalization of diplomatic relations.
The end of the Cold War in 1989 brought sweeping change to Europe, one consequence of which is the current war in Ukraine. In East Asia, by contrast, the truly tectonic shifts in international relations occurred earlier, in the 1970s. The end of the Cold War was important, and did bring some change, but the divisions on the Korean peninsula and across the Taiwan Strait remained the same, as did the regional security arrangements centered on the United States. The tensions in East Asia today can instead be traced to decisions made in the 1970s. Certainly, the rise of China has brought them to the forefront, but they relate to ambiguities in the decisions made in that decade, which however wise at the time, are today the cause of major contention.