During the summer of 2005, news writers in China’s main cities were prolific in their output of stories on the ever more strained relationship between Beijing and Tokyo.
Eager to help the hacks in their efforts to produce, people took to the streets often and in considerable numbers. Sometimes the protests became mildly violent, and a couple of diplomatic buildings and cars were stoned for no reason other than being there.
Much of the unrest was tied to the publication in Japan of a school textbook that glossed over many of the country’s wartime atrocities, but it was debatable whether this was the direct cause of the trouble.
Certainly, Beijing initially did little to stem the protests, which were reportedly very well organized, and just about every China specialist and Japan specialist on the planet had a theory. Some said the then Japanese prime minister was responsible because of his regular visits to the Yasukuni war shrine (which honors 18 war criminals alongside Japan’s war dead); others argued that it was all to do with disputed oil rights in the East China Sea; still more said China needed an outlet for social angst and Japan was as good a target as any; while a fourth group claimed the whole thing was inspired at the grassroots level, reflecting a renewed and widespread feeling of outrage.
The political relationship between China and Japan has improved a little since then but tensions still simmer on a political and a public level. What seems to elude Asia watchers is a single reason for the flare-up of 2005 – the explanation that Chinese people are bitter about Japan’s military past does not entirely cover it.
The unanswerable question
This topic is addressed in China-Japan Relations in the Twenty-first Century, a new compilation of essays edited by Michael Heazle and Nick Knight. The book is the result of a workshop held in November 2005 by the Griffith Asia Institute which brought together scholars to examine the cause and effect of the rising tensions.
Through 11 essays, a variety of authors examine the issue from starkly different points of view right down to the grassroots perspectives in the two countries, which – lest we forget – have managed to forge ever stronger economic ties despite the upsurge in political uncertainty.
Jian Zhang, a lecturer at the University of New South Wales in Australia examines the unique characteristics of Chinese nationalism in its relationship with Japan while Xia Liping, director of international strategic studies at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies, reflects on the impact of China-Japan relations on the economy of the region.
The Griffith Institute’s Nick Knight looks at how China’s view of the outside world affects globalization. He points out that, so far, globalization has benefited developed economies – like Japan – the most while developing countries – including China – teeter on the edge of an economic cliff and have to deal with much of the risk this new world order creates.
Each essay provides an explanation. Most likely, they are all correct but none answers the question of what caused the spike in tensions, at least not individually. Indeed, answering this question may not even be the purpose of the book, which seems more geared at generating ongoing discussion than finding closure.
By focusing on small points with a very formulaic and scholarly approach – fitting for what is more a scholarly text than popular reading – China-Japan Relations in the Twenty-first Century helps give the discussion texture and context.
It does not define a question and provide the answer, but it allows the reader to draw their own conclusions from a broad school of thought.
Excerpt: Resolving problems
Both China and Japan need to embrace the new concept of “win-win,” for we live in a world of interdependency in which the possibility of a decisive “win” for one side and a concomitant “loss” for the other is no longer possible. Trade and economic activity between China and Japan have been developing quickly, which has led to increased economic interdependence. The two countries need to abandon the model of “two tigers,” and accept the new models of “two horses.” This means that China and Japan would be like “two horses”, cooperatively drawing Asia towards a new era of modernization and integration so as to realize long-term stability and common prosperity. The model of “two horses” is more appropriate than the model of “two tigers,” and will be beneficial for the two countries as well as Asia as a whole.