This year marks the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War in July 1937 and the 45th anniversary of the normalization of bilateral diplomatic ties in September 1972. Although this year is a milestone in Japan-China relations, bilateral ties are far from good.
How to rebuild Japan-China relations is a major task for Japan's diplomacy as the outlook for the international situation has become uncertain with the inauguration of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump later this month.
The 1972 Japan-China joint communique underscored the significance of normalizing bilateral relations, which it said would contribute to the easing of tensions in Asia as well as to world peace. However, the balance of power between the two countries has been lost as China has become a major economic and military power. Such being the case, the framework for friendship between Japan and China alone, which was established 45 years ago, cannot maintain stability. There are even views among critics overseas that the Japan-China relationship is the most dangerous bilateral relationship in the world.
The central government's purchase of the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture, which are also claimed by China, and the spread of anti-Japan demonstrations in China spurred anti-Japan sentiment in China and anti-China sentiment in Japan. Furthermore, China's gross domestic product has surpassed that of Japan. Chinese official boats have frequently intruded into Japan's territorial waters and Beijing unilaterally established its air defense identification zone above the East China Sea.
Chinese forces' operations around Japan have become active as was shown by the fact that the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning passed the Miyako Strait for the first time at the end of last year.
The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled last year that China's claims to much of the South China Sea and the country's construction of a man-made island in the area constitute a violation of international law. However, Beijing has rejected the ruling and continued acting as if to make the area part of its inland sea. It is only natural that Japan has tried to strengthen the Japan-U.S. security arrangement and boost its defense capabilities in a bid to deter China's activities to challenge the established international order.
At the same time, however, these efforts alone are insufficient to counter China, which is increasing its influence on the international community. After the arbitration court ruling, Japan, the United States and other countries aimed to strengthen their alliance in a bid to pressure China to accept the ruling. However, the alliance collapsed after Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte laid out a policy of reconciling with China.
Japan and China have nurtured close economic relations over the past 45 years. Japan's official development assistance and technological aid has supported the economic growth of China, which implemented reform and door-opening policies. At the same time, there is no denying that the expansion of Chinese markets has helped the Japanese economy following the bursting of the speculation-driven, asset-inflating economic bubble in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
It is also necessary to increase common benefits that Japan and China can share, and help ease rivalries. Japan waged war against China in 1937 under the slogan of "conquering and punishing violent China." History has shown that any country driven by hatred and contempt against another country could fall into dangerous situations.
Private-sector exchanges between Japan and China are of growing importance. Such exchanges helped maintain channels for communication between the two countries from the end of World War II until 1972. Contrary to worsening bilateral relations, the number of Chinese visitors to Japan has kept increasing. Although there is some friction, such exchanges have largely contributed to bilateral ties.
The Anime film "your name." has been a big hit in China. Young Chinese people are highly interested in Japanese pop culture. If Chinese young people learn about the real Japan and improve their image of Japan, it will help reduce risks involving security.
Japan also needs to accurately grasp a real view of China. Many of the claims that China is a threat and that the Chinese economy will collapse, which are widespread in Japan, are not based on reality. It is impossible to grasp a real view of China only by focusing on one aspect of the country. The public should evaluate China from a broad perspective.
China's military expansion with a view to securing sea lanes and defending its maritime interests will likely continue. However, China, which is aiming to be a developed country toward the 100th anniversary of the country's founding in 2049, needs a peaceful environment. Therefore, China has a responsibility to exercise self-restraint and cooperate with its neighbors to that end.
It is an urgent task for Japan and China to establish a maritime and air communication mechanism between the defense authorities in these two countries as Chinese forces and the Self-Defense Forces have had close encounters with each other. Japan and China face numerous common challenges, such as how to respond to North Korea, counter the rise of protectionism and cope with the declining birthrate and aging of society. The two countries should seek ways to prevent the issue of the Senkaku Islands from adversely affecting overall bilateral ties. If the two countries work on common challenges and improve national sentiment in both countries, it will likely create an environment in which the two countries are willing to discuss more difficult issues.
Chinese President Xi Jinping often cites a proverb that means large countries are just like the lower reaches of a river when he talks about China's diplomatic policy. The proverb means that if big countries compromise, it will facilitate relations between countries. If China is aware that it is a major country, the country should be prepared to hold talks to settle disputes with other countries.
In the latter half of this year, the Chinese Communist Party will hold its 19th convention, bolstering the power base for President Xi. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is also eying the possibility of staying in power over a long period. If national leaders are predominant in their countries' politics, it can cause some problems, but such leaders can easily avoid criticism from the public even if they compromise with other countries through diplomacy.
There are four basic official documents between the two countries, including the 1972 joint communique. However, the environment surrounding Japan and China has changed since the two countries released a joint statement on a "Mutually Beneficial Relationship Based on Common Strategic Interests" in 2008.
As next year marks the 40th anniversary of the establishment of the bilateral peace and friendship treaty, the time is ripe for Japan and China to begin dialogue with an eye to issuing a fifth basic document between the two countries. Japan and China, which are separated only by a narrow strip of water, have no choice but to peacefully coexist without waging war. The leaders of the two countries should improve bilateral relations to ensure that.