Normalization of Diplomatic Relations between China and Japan: 50 Years of Development and Inspirations for the Future

By Yang Bojiang

China and Japan will soon be commemorating the 50th anniversary of the normalization of their diplomatic relations. Five decades ago, with their remarkable political wisdom, the leaders of the two countries opened a new chapter in history by putting China-Japan ties, which had been long off course, back on track. Starting off with the Japanese invasion of Taiwan in 1874, the bilateral relationship had since gone through a century of expansion and counter-expansion, aggression and counter-aggression. It continued to be in a state of confrontation and isolation after the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949 against the backdrop of the Cold War. However, the historical trajectory of China-Japan relationship was changed by the normalization of bilateral diplomatic relations in 1972. Over the past 50 years, the two countries have made efforts to foster mutual understanding, realized win-win progress in trade, investment, technology and regional cooperation, and achieved remarkable outcomes in areas of people-to-people exchanges and social governance cooperation, among others. Over the past 50 years, the bilateral relationship has gone through ups and downs, but it has in general safeguarded the bottom line of peace and cooperation, and made significant contributions to the development of the two countries and the well-being of the two peoples, as well as to peace and stability in Asia and the world. It is therefore a crucial task, on this pivotal occasion, for the community of Japanese studies to look back at and comb the trajectory of China-Japan relations over the past five decades, so that it can serve as a source of inspiration for the future.

I.A look back: 50 years of China-Japan relations 

As close neighbors separated only by a strip of water, China and Japan have a long history of connections. In 1871, the Sino-Japanese Friendship and Trade Treaty was signed between Qing government and Japan, which formally established diplomatic relations between the two countries for the first time in history in the form of a treaty. Since then, Japan has waged more than ten wars or “incidents” against China, which caused enormous suffering to the Chinese people. After the establishment of the PRC in 1949, the two countries experienced 22-year-long mutual isolation and hostility at the official and political levels until the normalization of their diplomatic ties. Since 1972, China-Japan relations have gone through three phases.

The first phase saw the restoration of “normalcy” and growth of cooperation (1972-1992). As the normalization of  China-Japan relationship was assumed, the two countries restored diplomatic relations and engaged in close economic and trade cooperation. The reform and opening-up of China and the conclusion of the China-Japan Treaty of Peace and Friendship in 1978 provided new impetus for bilateral cooperation, ushering in a “golden decade” for China-Japan ties. In 1989, Japan joined the West in imposing sanctions on China, but soon realized that “the maintenance and development of favorable and stable relations with China are not only important for the two countries but also for the peace and stability of the Asia-Pacific region” and that “it is not advisable to adapt a policy of isolating China”. Based on this recognition, Japan took the lead in restoring normal engagements with China. In 1992, Emperor Akihito’s visit to China brought the China-Japan relationship to its peak. In this phase, although frictions emerged over history textbooks, the East China Sea continental shelf, and the Yasukuni Shrine, they were effectively managed by both countries in a generally friendly and cooperative atmosphere.

The second phase witnessed cooperation upgradation characterized by “cold politics and hot economics” (1992-2010). As the Cold War ended and globalization set sail, economic cooperation between the two countries remained robust. At the same time, the collapse of the Soviet Union weakened the strategic foundation of China-Japan ties, unveiling more conflicts between the two sides and thus leading to a period of “cold politics and hot economics” when cooperation and frictions grew side by side. After 1995, the Japan-US alliance ended its “drifting” and was even strengthened, with the direction of its military cooperation expanding from “concerns for Japan” to “concerns for the peripheral situation,” paving the way for US intervention in the Asia-Pacific and in China’s internal affairs. The collision between the US-Japan security system and China-Japan friendship and cooperation became salient over the Taiwan question. Following the late Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s annual visits to the Shrine led to a political stalemate between China and Japan. Conflicts over maritime territories also intensified. In 2010, the Japanese side illegally seized a Chinese trawler and detained the crew in the waters of the Diaoyu Islands, plunging the bilateral ties to a “freezing point” since its normalization. On the other hand, however, the two countries made extraordinary achievements in economic cooperation during this period, which was moving toward regionalization and multilateralization. This trend is well reflected in the 1998 China-Japan Joint Declaration on the Establishment of a Partnership of Friendship and Cooperation for Peace and Development, which is the joint third political document signed between the two countries. In response to the 1997 Asian financial crisis, China, Japan and South Korea initiated a trilateral summit dialogue mechanism through the “ASEAN Plus Three” forums. In 2000, the Chiang Mai Initiative, a regional currency swap arrangement for East Asia, was signed at the ASEAN Plus Three Finance Ministers’ Meeting, with participation of both China and Japan.

The third phase is marked by conflict proliferation and strategic competition (2010 to present). Along with the changes in the balance of power between Japan and China, symbolized by the shifting of economic output, and with the major changes in the external environment, such as the US strategic pivot to the Asia-Pacific, structural conflicts between China and Japan have come to the fore, triggering systematic and strategic competition. While the two countries continue to forge economic cooperation and promote the signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), their political and security conflicts have gone beyond the bilateral sphere, now touching on deep-seated issues relating the international structure and international rules such as the legal basis of the post-war system, the direction of the reconstruction of regional and international orders, and UN reforms. “This opened the way to a strategic gaming with a reconstructed bilateral landscape as the endgame.” China, as one of the world’s multipolar powers, is “moving closer to the center of the world stage” and seeking to contribute its wisdom and solutions to the human development, whereas Japan, in spearheading the transformation of its security strategy, is accelerating its efforts toward a great political and military power. In 2013, Japan released its first post-war National Security Strategy, which clearly states that “Japan will continue to strive to achieve the UN Security Council reform, including through an expansion of both permanent and non-permanent seats.” In this context, political and security conflicts and maritime territorial disputes between China and Japan intensified. In 2012, Japanese government announced the “nationalization” of the Diaoyu Islands, attempting to solidify its illegal occupation through the transfer of property rights, while China sent regular law enforcement patrols into the territorial waters around the islands. In 2013, China established the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone, while Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe paid homage to the Yasukuni Shrine. The Japan-US alliance once again stepped up its intervention over the Taiwan question. In April 2021, Japanese and US leaders issued a joint leaders’ statement expressing concerns over “the peace and stability across the Taiwan Straits” , for the first time in 52 years since the inclusion of the so-called “Taiwan clause” in the 1969 Nixon-Sato Joint Communique.

II.Key variables influencing China-Japan relations

The development and evolution of China-Japan relations over the past five decades has been the result of the cross-cutting synergies of a variety of factors: on the surface, it has been driven by the interaction of interests and conflicts between the two countries, but behind it are often the spurs of domestic, regional and global dynamics. These variables at different levels, with different forces and directions can perhaps be generally categorized into three dimensions: the characteristics of China-Japan relations, factors within the two countries, and variables in the external environment. Therefore, only through comprehensive and dynamic analysis can we understand how the bilateral relationship evolves and provides reference to its healthy development in the future.

The first category is the characteristics of China-Japan relations, including historical and cultural factors, geopolitical factors, and inherent tensions. For the bilateral ties, “history is like a canvas: however rich the colors of realpolitik are, the bottom color of the canvas can not be peeled off. In other words, reality is always happening on an elongated strip of history.” The history of China-Japan relations can be summarized into three scenes: friendly interactions, wars, confrontation and isolation, which have had a profound impact on contemporary China-Japan relations. This is why the two countries “appear to be close, but are actually quite far apart in many aspects.” Both located in East Asia, China and Japan are bonded by close geopolitical connections. By having the “proper”distance to the Asian continent, ancient Japan was able to protect itself while soaking up Chinese civilization. In contemporary times, its geographical location, according to Spykman’s Rimland Theory, has given Japan its availability to the US strategy toward China and its importance in the US-led alliances in the Asia-Pacific. This geopolitical value will only grow as the US makes greater efforts to “return to the Asia-Pacific” and advance its Indo-Pacific strategy. This is an important asset in Japan’s strategies toward China and the US. Of course, Japan’s geopolitical constraints on China (and Russia) are mutual.

The second category is the variables within China and Japan, including their domestic situations as well as foreign strategies and policies. In the post-war era, driven by the democratization reform and the public distaste for war, anti-war pacifism became the mainstream theme of the political thought in Japan. After the 1980s, as its economy made significant headway, Japan saw a burgeoning pluralism in its social values, ways of thinking, and lifestyles. Political slogans such as “bringing the post-war era to a final accounting” and “making Japan an international state” under Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone marked the rise of great-nation chauvinism. After the Cold War, as Soviet Union and Eastern Europe experienced drastic changes and as the Japanese economy entered the Lost Decades following the bubble burst, Japanese nationalism re-emerged and switched from a “vehement” to a “self-pitying” form, with the country’s foreign relations bearing the brunt. Right-wing forces tried to motivate national confidence and drive a rightward shift of social ideology by glorifying the war of aggression in order to consolidate their political status. This was particularly salient under Shinzo Abe, who took office as prime minister in 2006 and 2012. From Nakasone to Abe, as Japan was freed from the shackles of the Cold War, its pursuit to be a great political and military power finally entered executing phase from plotting phase. The outward-looking and aggressive transformation of Japan’s national strategy, first and foremost its security strategy, has led to rising conflicts and competitive confrontation with China. Since the normalization of their diplomatic relations, China’s overall policy toward Japan has been consistent and stable. China attaches great importance to its relationship with Japan and is committed to its healthy and stable development. At the same time, China firmly safeguards its principles and national interests, and stays committed to properly addressing the divergences between the two countries. No matter how the situation evolves, China has never given up efforts on improving its relations with Japan. In June 2019, the two countries’ leaders reached the political consensus on jointly building “bilateral relations that meet the requirements of the new era.”

The third category of variables concerns the external environment, which includes factors specific to the times as well as the global landscape, especially the direct impacts of US strategies and policies. Among what Nixon called the “five power centers” in the early 1970s, the US and the Soviet Union had just shifted their positions of offense and defense in the Cold War as the former sustained a decline in its economic and military strengths. The Soviet threat brought China and the US closer. Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 started the normalization process of the two countries’ relations. The Nixon shocks directly caused the Eisaku Sato cabinet to step down, which prompted Japan to speed up the adjustment of its policy toward China. The process of normalizing diplomatic ties between China and Japan was accelerated as Kakuei Tanaka promised to resume ties with China in the presidential election of the Liberal Democratic Party. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and major changes in the international landscape in the early 1990s, the strategic basis of US and Japanese  cooperation with China was weakened and the US-Japan alliance was once again girded. In 1996, American and Japanese leaders issued a joint declaration, stating that “continued US military presence is essential for preserving peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region” and that “Japan-US security relationship forms an essential pillar which supports the positive regional engagements of the US”. From this point on, Japanese foreign strategies and policies have embarked on the path of what American academics call “reluctant realism”. The “redefined” Japan-US alliance has put hurdles to improving China-Japan relations and developing a new type of security cooperation relationship. The rapid rise of China after the 2008 financial crisis triggered strategic anxiety in the US and Japan. The Obama administration’s strategic rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific aimed to multilaterally counterbalance China with regional allies, which was coupled with Abe’s “Democratic Security Diamond” and “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” strategies. In the wake of the COVID-19 outbreaks, China strived to leverage its institutional strengths and was among the first countries to resume work and production. After this pandemic, the ratio of China’s economic output to those of the US and Japan is expected to rise more significantly, continuing to drive changes in the global balance of power.

III.Inspirations of 50 years history for the future 

In general, China and Japan have maintained peaceful and cooperative relations over the past 50 years. They have made significant achievements and accumulated rich experiences in following the trend of globalization, expanding and deepening bilateral and multilateral cooperation, steering development in the right direction, effectively managing conflicts and properly handling differences. However, amid the complex and daunting challenges in the international landscape, there has also been a notable increase in the divergences between the two countries, and a trend of broadening and deepening of confrontation and competition. It is therefore urgent for us to draw on both positive and negative lessons learned from the past five decades to deepen our understanding and seek inspirations for the future.

First, the bottom line of safeguarding peace and cooperation is not only in the common interests of China and Japan, but also a major contribution to the region and the world. It is especially important, as we navigate the combined forces of major changes and a pandemic both unseen in a century, to understand that China and Japan both gain from cooperation and lose from confrontation, so that we can truly fathom the importance, necessity and reality of the stable improvement of China-Japan relations, which is a wise choice in line with the fundamental interests of both countries as well as the long-term interests of the region and the world. 60 years ago, Dr. Henry Kissinger commented on US diplomacy by saying that, for years we have not been talking about the goals of diplomacy, but have focused on unsettled arguments like whether we should be “soft” or “tough”, “flexible” or “rigid”. In the same vein, the key to China’s diplomacy lies in the accurate awareness of taking fundamental interests as a principle and rational understanding as a basis.

Second, China and Japan still need to promote interests combination and continue to make economic cooperation a “ballast” for the stable development of their bilateral relations. Economic cooperation and interdependence have always been the key and basic cornerstones of peace and cooperation between the two countries. The bilateral trade, for example, has grown more than 380 times from US$913.6 million in 1971 to approximately US$350 billion today. According to the World Economic Trends 2021 II released by the Japanese Cabinet Office, “if problems were to arise in China’s supply chains or transportation networks, Japan, compared to the US and Germany, will face greater challenges to substitute imported Chinese products.” From the perspective of China, despite its reduced dependence on Japan due to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and other strategies for diversified economic growth, there is still great room for cooperation with Japan in high-tech sectors such as semiconductors.

Third, true reconciliation between China and Japan requires genuine, in-depth dialogue that goes deep into history and the construction of regional and international orders. By signing the US-led Treaty of San Francisco, Japan conducted its low-cost post-war disposal, which was oriented toward the US and other Western countries and did not cover its major Asian neighbors including China, who suffered the most from Japanese militarism and contributed the most to the victory of the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression. It is important for Japan to make up lessons. Looking into the future, China and Japan also need to engage in a strategic and constructive dialogue on the reconstruction of the regional order in the new era—a unified political and security order with equal participation and indivisibility of countries in the Asia-Pacific region.

Fourth, we need to review the aspiration of normalization of diplomatic relations to “seek major common ground and put aside minor differences”, and cogitate the future of China-Japan relations at the height of history and civilizations. Over the past five decades, the development of China-Japan relations has been mainly focused on economic cooperation based on structural complementarity. The two countries made extraordinary contributions to the economy of their own countries, the Asia-Pacific region and the world by building on complementarities, interdependence and win-win situation. However, the two countries are different in fundamental systems and political values despite having interlinkage in cultural values. Therefore, civilization dialogue is needed on the basis of rejecting Cold War mentality, deepening mutual understanding, and properly managing divergences. The future of the bilateral relations should be viewed at the height of human history and world civilizations.

Yang Bojiang is Director-General and Research Fellow of the Institute of Japanese Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and Executive Vice President of Chinese Association of Japanese Studies.