(Project of the Kajima Institute of International Peace)

Problems in Sino-Japanese Relations, 1992-2042

Ezra F. Vogel
Professor of the Social Sciences Emeritus at Harvard University

(This report is prepared by the SSDP secretariat.)

Since the end of the Second World War, Sino-Japanese relations have gone through a number of phases. While, there have been stages where both countries have successfully deepened ties, and maintained steady relations, the last decade primarily has seen these relations turn sour. Significant economic competition, with an increase in military tensions, has begun to define relations between these two states.

On November 8, 2017, the Society of Security and Diplomatic Policy Studies hosted Professor Ezra F. Vogel, Henry Ford II Professor of the Social Sciences Emeritus at Harvard University, for a talk titled, "Problems in Sino-Japanese Relations, 1992-2042".

Discussion highlights

In his introductory remarks, Professor Vogel highlighted Sino-Japanese relations under Deng Xiaoping. He stated that during Deng Xiaoping's leadership of the Communist Party of China (CPC), relations between both countries were warm, and much progress was made during this time. Professor Vogel attributed this to the fact that as a leader Deng Xiaoping was very forward looking. He sought Japan's aid and assistance in the modernization of China but he also sought to build a Sino-Japanese relationship for the future. He acknowledged the historical animosity between both nations, but he was forward-looking and sought to build a peaceful and better future. Deng Xiaoping's success in building better ties with Japan was also reflected in the warm welcome he had received when he visited Japan in October 1978.

Although Japanese opinion toward China became more critical after the Tiananmen Tragedy of 1989, between 1989 -1992, Japan played a special role in China's economic development when much of the international community had placed sanctions on China due to its human rights violations in this incident. Japan urged other nations not to initiative severe sanctions and it was willing to lift sanctions on China earlier than were other countries.

Professor Vogel went on to state that the visit of Japanese Emperor Akihito to China in 1992 was an extraordinary event. No Chinese emperor ever visited Japan and the 1992 visit was the only time a Japanese Emperor ever visited China. The visit helped reduce the isolation of China since the Tiananmen Incident. His visit was well-received. The visit was a great success and all went smoothly.However, soon after the Emperor's visit, Deng Xiaoping retired from the political scene in 1992, and relations deteriorated. The following are the key reasons why relations deteriorated.

Reasons for the deterioration in Sino-Japanese relations post 1992

Deng Xiaoping and many officials of his generation had been military leaders who fought against the Japanese from 1937-1945. Therefore it was difficult to accuse them of being too "soft"on Japan so they had a political base that allowed them to be friendly to Japan. However, later leaders who had not fought against Japan were more vulnerable to criticism of being too soft on Japan and not standing up for China's interests.

Furthermore, with the collapse of the former Soviet Union (USSR) and the end of the Cold War the need for the United States, China and Japan to cooperate against threats posed by the "common enemy" essentially had disappeared. After its clash with the Soviet Union in 1969, China regarded it as essential to gain the cooperation, of the United States, Japan, and other powers against the Soviet Union. After the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s, this was no longer necessary. U.S. and Japanese officials also no longer considered it strategicially important to cooperate with China against Russia.

At the time of the US-Japan Treaty of 1960, Japan's economy was weak and the United States did not demand much of Japan for its own defense. In the 1980s when the Japanese economy was much stronger, the United States began to request that Japan take a greater role in defense. As Japan began to take a larger role in its own defense, the Chinese feared that Japan would return to militarism. Chinese saw Japanese as a militaristic people. Many Chinese believed that Japan had been planning to invade China ever since the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-5. Now that the United States was requesting that Japan take more responsibility for its own defense, Chinese worried more that Japan would again become militaristic. The Chinese media began to give great attention to any news from Japan about military planning, giving the impression to the Chinese public that militarists were regaining power in Japan.

The Chinese economy was weakened by the foreign sanctions after the Tiananmen Tragedy, but by 1994 when sanctions were reduced, the Chinese economy was growing rapidly. U.S. military officials who went to Congress to request more funds for aid began talking more about China's military advances. Since Japan was a U.S. ally, some Chinese believed that the United States and Japan were trying to contain China.

After the collapse of the USSR and Eastern Europe, some Chinese leaders said that it was important to have patriotic education to ensure this would not happen in China. After the June 4 Tiananmen Tragedy, Chinese leaders worried that Chinese youth might not support the leaders. In order to address this, by 1994 they began to write new textbooks and introduce into the media more patriotic education. Chinese found that criticisms of Japan for its role in the China War, 1931-1945, were very helpful in promoting patriotism. To promote patriotic education, the Chinese continued to use the press but they also began to use movies, TV, and later the internet. World War II movies were widely used because they had a broad appeal that helped strengthen patriorism. These movies helped strengthen anti-Japanese feelings among the common people.

Another factor was the Taiwan independence movement that gained momentum after the locally born people under Lee Teng-hui came to power following the death of Chiang Ching-kuo. Lee Teng-hui, who had graduated from Kyoto University, had a strong connection to Japan, and he bolstered Japan–Taiwanese relations, especially those of Taiwan's business community. Mainland Chinese officials, who feared this Taiwanese independence movement, worried about the close relations between Japan and Lee Teng-hui. Mainland officials criticized the close relationship of the Taiwan people to Japan.

Furthermore, from the 1990s, especially after the Wall Street financial crisis, China's economic power was on the rise, and many Chinese began to feel that they were quite strong. While in the early 1990s, the Japanese were still the powerful "rich neighbors", the Chinese by contrast were still poor. However, by the late 1990s, since the Japanese economy had stagnated and the Wall Street financial crisis showed economic weaknesses in capitalist economies, many Chinese began to gain confidence that their economy would soon be larger than Japan's. Professor Vogel's observation at this point was that, from the Chinese perspective, it was the Japanese who had begun to get nervous, and from the Japanese perspective, Chinese who had begun to be arrogant. He stated that, this change in the economic relationship led to rising tensions between the two countries. Furthermore, Chinese began to believe that with China's growth Japanese aid was not as essential as it had been earlier and that even if Japan were to cut aid it would not be such a serious problem.

The political instability in Japan resulting from the decline of stable LDP leadership and cooperation with the bureaucracy contributed to the tensions. In 2009 Japan was undergoing a period of domestic turmoil since the former dominance of LDP rule and good relations with the bureaucracy had provided some stability. Despite Prime Minister Hatoyama's desire to promote good relations with China, he lacked the experienced stable government and the broad public support to manage the relationship with China in a smooth manner. The lack of stable experienced political leadership in Japan contributed to the mishandling of incidents, such as the 2010 Chinese ship accident and the 2012 "nationalization" of the Senkaku islands.

Professor Vogel believes that both Japan and China do not want to have bad relations and they want to avoid accidents. However in disputes, it is difficult for either state to back down at a time when the other may be pushing, as this would be viewed as a weakness. He believed that there is a better chance for stability and modest improvement in Sino-Japanese relations under Prime Minister Abe and President Xi Jinping. Due to the fact that Abe is viewed as a patriot, he is less susceptible to the kind of criticism that Hatoyama faced during his stint as Prime Minister. Simultaneously in China, President Xi Jingping currently commands immense support and power. Since both leaders have strong stable national bases, they have an opportunity to increase the amount of communication between high-level leaders of the two countries and to forge a modest improvement in Sino-Japanese ties.

Factors that will influence China's behavior in the future

Professor Vogel acknowledges that as China continues to grow economically, Chinese leaders do have a high level of confidence and are likely to increase their economic and political influence around the world. He does not believe that China has the intention or will gain the leverage to "take over the entire world." China is still in the process of developing its relations with the world and will need to make many adjustments as its global influence grows.

To make an estimate of how China might behave in the future, we can consider several key factors. The first factor that will determine what China does is how the other states, both in Asia and elsewhere, would treat China. The way other powers, such as the US and Japan manage their domestic affairs and deal with international relations will be very important in shaping China's behavior.

The second factor is the Chinese economy. While, there is a general understanding that the Chinese economy will slow down, there are differing perceptions as to how soon and at what pace this would likely occur. Professor Vogel noted that in general Japanese economists are a little more pessimistic than US economists regarding the rate of growth of the Chinese economy. In his view, it is likely that the Chinese economy will slow down significantly within the next decade. The key issues are how much China can reduce poverty, build a safety net, and manage public debt before it slows down. When the economy slows down, it is possible that some domestic social tensions will become more pronounced and if so, it is not impossible that Chinese leaders will promote patriotism, including ani-Japanese sentiments, to maintain political stability. A slowdown will of course reduce China's ability to influence events around the world.

The third factor is Chinese domestic politics. While the consolidation of power by President Xi Jinping has been much discussed, with many viewing him as China's strongest leader since Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, Professor Vogel asserted that he believed that Deng Xiaoping had much more authority from his background and experience than Xi and that Xi had to work hard to set up a structure, including making himself head of leadership small groups, and carrying out publicity to give himself a strong power base.

Under Xi Jinping thus far domestic grievances have largely been local. Thus far, the regime has not had a nation-wide linkage between those with grievances nor a linkage of groups within China and foreign countries, as for example, the Uyghur's link with foreign countries might grow.

The fourth factor is how patient China will be in dealing with the Taiwan issue. The Taiwan issue remains the issue most likely to cause conflict between China and other countries. Some analysts are concerned that China may be willing to take action on Taiwan before the 100th anniversary of the PRC in 2049, which could put China in conflict with other countries.

Three Possible scenarios for the future of Sino-Japanese relations

Professor Vogel highlighted three possible scenarios for the future of Sino-Japanese relations.

The first path that the Chinese could take, is a scenario in which China pursues political and economic interests using its economic leverage and soft power but not military power. In this scenario, China, while pursuing its own interests, would cooperate with other major countries on key international issues and help strengthen global order. President Xi Jinping's speech at the World Economic Forum at Davoce highlighted a number of key areas where China wanted to cooperate, such as the environment, as well as in multilateral banks such as its Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).

The second path that China could take is a greater use of its military, in Asia and internationally as well. China continues to build up its military and it may narrow the gap between its military and the U.S. military over the next two decades. Professor Vogel believes this scenario is unlikely because of the potential devastating results with modern military weapons, but other major powers will continue to develop their military forces to reduce the danger of this outcome.

The third path would be the breakout of conflict. While Professor Vogel stated that the chances of a conflict are very low, the possibility cannot be ruled out. It remains important for all major powers to continue discussions with China and to work with China in managing problems that might lead to conflict.