Tensions are high between East Asian neighbours China and Japan. China accuses Japan of failing to repent for historical wrongs, while Japan accuses China of dwelling on the past. But behind the talk of the past there are also fears and ambitions for the future. As China speeds towards economic parity with the Japanese heavyweight, competition for resources and markets is growing. Both wish to match their economic prowess with leading roles in world diplomacy. Both are anxious to take maximum advantage of a rapidly changing regional power balance.
For centuries, Japan was within the cultural sphere of the vast Chinese civilization to its west. It adopted the Chinese writing system and numerous other cultural legacies.
Modern tensions in China’s relations with Japan date back to the 1894-5 Sino-Japanese war, in which Japan marked its emergence as a world power by inflicting a shock defeat on China. Japan won Formosa (now Taiwan) and by 1910 it had also colonised Korea.
Japan’s militarisation accelerated in the early 1930s, and the resource-poor country set its sights on more imperial prizes. In 1931, Japan invaded north-eastern China. Japan sought to consolidate its hold on China and in 1937 it swept south.
The fall of the Chinese city of Nanjing heralded one of the most poisonous episodes in Chinese-Japanese relations. Japanese soldiers embarked on a frenzy of murder, rape and looting in which estimates suggest up to 300,000 people were killed and 20,000 women were raped. Chinese women were also among the tens of thousands of Asian women forced to serve as sexual slaves to Japanese soldiers.
Japan’s government also sponsored the development of chemical and biological weapons in China, testing them against POWs and civilian populations. Armed resistance to Japanese control in China continued throughout World War II. Finally defeated, the retreating Japanese forces are thought to have left at least 700,000 chemical weapons littering China.
Though the US’s formal occupation of Japan ended in 1952, it left behind a large contingent of forces that remains to this day. Japan and the People’s Republic of China finally normalised relations in 1972.
Japan emerged in the post-war period to become the unquestioned giant of Asia, and today remains the world’s number-two economic power after the US. But since the early 1980s Chinese growth has soared – and it shows little sign of slowing. While China sprints forward, Japan inches along – and Japan is now feeling China’s breath on its neck.
In many ways China’s growth benefits Japan. Last year, China overtook the US to become Japan’s main trading partner. The two economies are in many ways complementary, with China offering cheap goods and labour and Japan dominating the hi-tech industries.
But it is China’s unquenchable thirst for resources that has Japan worried. The two nations are now the world’s second- and third-largest oil consumers, and the race is on to secure access to energy and other resources.
In 2004, the two clashed over the route of an oil pipeline from large oilfields in eastern Siberia, with Japan bidding for it to go to the eastern port of Nakhodna for shipment to Japan, and China urging it to end in the Chinese city of Daqing. Japan won that battle.
Both sides dispute the route of maritime borders in the East China Sea, where there are thought to be reserves of oil and gas. They both also claim islands within this disputed zone. A two-day chase was sparked in late 2004 when a Chinese submarine strayed into Japanese waters close to the islands.
The need to secure access to energy has also led to frantic diplomacy further afield, in such places as Iran, Africa, and Latin America.
Bound up with Japan and China’s growing economic rivalry and competition for resources is a struggle for strategic control. For centuries, China was the dominant power in the region. It bridled at its inferiority to Japan over the last century, and now seeks to reassert its dominance.
Central to this rivalry is military power. China has reported big recent increases in military spending – and is suspected of under-reporting such expenditure. In an important recent defence report, Japan for the first time labelled China a security concern, along with North Korea.
Meanwhile, Japan continues gradually to expand its military role, in spite of its pacifist constitution. It too is one of the world’s biggest spenders on defence. Its contributions to US-led military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq reflect its desire to play a more assertive role.
A major security focus is Taiwan, which China regards as a breakaway province but whose leaders argue is a sovereign state. The US has made clear it may be prepared to defend Taiwan in the face of a Chinese assault – and any such operation would most likely draw in Japan, the nearest US military foothold. Japan underlined its support when it declared Taiwan a security concern in a joint statement with the US.
Until now, Japan has relied heavily on the protection afforded by its American ally, but there are signs it may be seeking a more prominent role as an international heavyweight – such as its thus far unsuccessful bid to gain a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Chinese protesters have opposed this campaign.
China too has thrust itself confidently onto the regional and world stage, taking a lead role in local diplomatic initiatives, repairing ties with India, joining Brazil, Russia and India in a new economic bloc of developing nations, and travelling far afield to secure new ties and trade deals.
Japanese portrayals of China may betray unease about the rapidly changing power balance in the region – such as when Japan’s trade minister recently called China “a scary country”.
Sixty years after the end of World War II, historical resentments remain a persistent cloud over Japan-China relations. Japan says it has paid its dues for the past, in the 1951 San Francisco peace treaty and the 1972 joint communiqué in which China agreed to renounce demands for war reparations. It has issued high-level apologies on 17 occasions to China since.
But China says Japan has failed to repent sincerely for its wartime wrongs. It points to Japanese history textbooks that it says play down Japan’s wartime wrongs, and to recent visits by the Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to the Yasukuni shrine to Japan’s war dead. These have triggered demonstrations against Japanese interests in China, anti-Japan football hooliganism, and even attacks by hackers on Mr Koizumi’s website.
The discovery in 2003 that 400 Japanese tourists had enjoyed a three-day sex orgy with 500 Chinese prostitutes – and on the anniversary of Japan’s 1931 occupation of north-east China – stoked memories of Japanese abuses as colonial master and provoked outraged accusations that Japan was trying to “shame” China.
China experts point out that anti-Japanese demonstrations are one of the few forms of protest allowed in China.
Despite ever closer economic ties, it has been more than three years since the head of either country paid a visit to the other.
Countering the neighbours’ deeply entrenched suspicions of each other may be difficult. There is little popular contact – particularly little Chinese tourism to Japan. And the media in both countries are often guilty of playing to popular national prejudices, analysts say.