Sunday, November 23, 2014
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Beyond the Sino-Japanese Rivalry

China's government has sentenced two of its citizens to life in prison for their role in securing prostitutes for hundreds of male Japanese visitors in the southern city of Zhuhai last autumn. The Chinese government is also pressuring Tokyo to turn over the Japanese businessmen who allegedly requested the prostitutes.

This story made headlines around the world, and fits well with how the world press typically covers Sino-Japanese relations. Regrettably, such incidents recur with enough regularity to feed the media machine that continues to stir a nationalism rooted in conflicting historical memories.

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's annual visits to the Yasukuni Shrine - which is widely viewed as a symbol of Japan's former militarism - is a conspicuous example of this. The publicity that the press gives to these visits has helped impede an invitation to Koizumi from China's leaders for a state visit.

Recently, the discovery of mustard gas canisters left behind by Japanese forces during World War II has also served to keep memories of the Imperial Japanese Army's wartime conduct alive among older Chinese.

Moreover, rival Sino-Japanese claims to the Senkaku (or Diao Yutai) Islands resurfaced last year when the Japanese government leased three islets in the chain from private parties. The action, purportedly undertaken to reduce the prospect of landings and demonstrations by Japanese right-wingers, set off a brief, though frenzied, reaction in China, as well as in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Meanwhile, differences over Taiwan also foster tensions periodically, such as when former Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui sought to visit Japan for medical treatment.

But this is not the whole story. Although such incidents reveal a troubling level of mistrust between the Chinese and Japanese that is not merely a product of media coverage, it is noteworthy that both governments have worked consistently, diligently, and with considerable success to resolve such problems and contain their political fallout.

Of course, official relations between the two countries are marked by much political and economic competition - some of it healthy, some of it a possible harbinger of future strategic rivalry. The competitive strain in Sino-Japanese relations is especially visible in energy politics.

Demand for oil in Asia is growing rapidly, and with China and Japan increasingly dependent upon imports, each has naturally sought to improve its energy security by diversifying sources of supply. Both countries covet access to Russian reserves, especially those located in the Angarsk fields of Siberia.

Last spring China appeared to have locked up a Russian commitment to build a pipeline to service the China market at Daqing. Japan, however, raised the ante with new offers of financial incentives. Its bid for an alternative pipeline to Nakodka to serve Japanese, Korean, and other markets remains alive, creating another point of competitive friction.

In their rivalry for leadership in promoting Asian regional cooperation, meanwhile, China has taken an early lead. Two years ago, China trumped Japan by offering a Free Trade Agreement to the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, while front-loading its own tariff concessions.

More recently, China, along with India, signed an ASEAN-proposed Treaty of Commerce and Amity, while the Japanese hesitated. In addition, China has served as the principal broker in talks between the US and North Korea on nuclear issues, in which Japan has a huge stake.

But this backdrop of contention and competition masks emerging collaborative aspects of Sino-Japanese relations that are profoundly important, but which, unfortunately, seem to the world's media to be too mundane to "sell."

For example, trade and investment flows continue to expand rapidly. Bilateral trade topped $100 billion in 2003, as Japan's exports to China increased by more than 10%, fuelled by semiconductors, electrical equipment, and automobiles. Meanwhile, China replaced the US as Japan's biggest source of imports, and is now one of the few non-members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries with which Japan runs a trade deficit.

Similarly, direct investment by Japanese firms is increasing as they relocate production facilities to China to capitalize on lower labor costs and high-quality engineering talent. Even the 20% cut in Japan's Official Development Assistance for China scarcely harmed their smooth economic ties.

Of course, there is no assurance that today's expanded commerce will preclude eventual strategic rivalry, or succeed in erasing lingering wartime animosity. But both countries now place a premium on extending their economic interdependence. China sees economic ties as a way to hasten its modernization. Japan sees them as a way to enhance its international competitiveness, and to provide China with incentives for geopolitical moderation.

Most importantly, a new generation of leaders in both countries seems less hung up on divisive memories. They may also see in Europe's surge toward economic integration a model for themselves and an inducement to intensifying regional cooperation. Pragmatic leaders in both countries clearly recognize the benefits of diplomatic collaboration on issues that affect the region, such as North Korea's nuclear ambitions.

Ultimately, the historical wounds that have long divided China and Japan, and the more current diplomatic flashpoints that the global media inevitably trumpet, only tell part of the Sino-Japanese story. There are economic and geopolitical rivalries between China and Japan that dwarf in importance the high-profile insults to national pride that make headlines. But there are also compelling economic and political inducements toward cooperation that prevent these rivalries from developing into full-blown crises.

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