In Other Words

Mutually Assured Suspicion

Sekai (World), March 2001, Tokyo Gaiko Forum (Diplomatic Forum), February 2001, Tokyo The late Japanese Minister of Foreign Affairs Saburo Okita once used the term "scapegoatability" to describe Japanese diplomatic weakness in the face of Asian criticisms of Japan’s colonial past. Since the early 1980s, China in particular has repeatedly denounced Japan for ignoring or ...

Sekai (World), March 2001, Tokyo
Gaiko Forum (Diplomatic Forum), February 2001, Tokyo

The late Japanese Minister of Foreign Affairs Saburo Okita once used the term "scapegoatability" to describe Japanese diplomatic weakness in the face of Asian criticisms of Japan’s colonial past. Since the early 1980s, China in particular has repeatedly denounced Japan for ignoring or "falsifying" Japanese colonial history until 1945. But as the balance of power between Japan and China begins to shift, a continuing focus on the past is undermining the potential for stable and constructive relations between the two countries in the future.

In a recent issue of Sekai, a liberal monthly Japanese opinion journal, Japan’s former State Secretary for Foreign Affairs Keizo Takemi argues that China’s efforts to play the history card have largely backfired. The end of the Cold War contributed to greater pluralism in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), eventually provoking some public skepticism about the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) regime. The CCP responded with a vigorous campaign to "enlighten" the public about the party’s role as a defender of Chinese history. CCP officials highlighted the party’s role in repelling Japan’s aggression and used history texts to emphasize the brutality of Japan’s invasions of the 1930s and 1940s. Takemi believes that these initiatives worked — perhaps too well. These days, the Chinese government worries that young Chinese are too resentful of Japan.

Amplified by a Chinese media that tends to cast Japan in a negative light, such campaigns laid the foundation for a nationalist social movement in the mid-1990s, best represented by the bestselling book China Can Say No, a tract by leading young Chinese writers that bashes Japan as well as the United States. The extent of popular anti-Japanese sentiment led to widespread public criticism of Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan when he asked Japan to support the weakening Chinese economy in late 2000.

Japanese officials, meanwhile, began to perceive various Chinese actions as threats, ranging from territorial disputes over the Senkaku islands to the modernization of China’s nuclear arsenal. Japan responded by scaling back aid and development assistance to China, increasing its support for Taiwanese democracy, and considering a theater missile defense program. A nationalist backlash gave new impetus to the efforts of some Japanese scholars and opinion leaders to introduce their own history textbooks glorifying Japan’s history.

Takemi argues that this anti-China sentiment is evident across the Japanese political spectrum. Japan’s most conservative forces, embodied by Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, emphasize their country’s national identity in the midst of globalization and encourage the restoration of Japan’s "traditional conservative values" of national pride and diplomatic autonomy [see "Japan’s Right Stuff?" Foreign Policy, January/February 2001]. Meanwhile, liberals, mainly younger Japanese under 30, support Taiwan’s democracy and strongly oppose the PRC’s oppressive regime. And perhaps most significant, they do not carry a sense of guilt about Japan’s past.

These conflicts have spilled over into Sino-Japanese economic relations. Japanese critics charge that the pillars of recent Japanese economic policy toward China — economic aid and foreign direct investment (FDI) — are losing impact. The Japanese press reports that Chinese people do not appreciate Japanese aid, while others charge that China’s military buildup and suppression of human rights violate the conditionality principles established in Japan’s Official Development Assistance Charter. Finally, several Japanese companies have begun pulling out of China due to its capricious business rules and deficient legal infrastructure.

But, as Japanese China scholar Tomoyuki Kojima of Keio University argues in a recent issue of the monthly foreign-affairs journal Gaiko Forum, it is in Japan’s self-interest to engage the Chinese economy. Kojima asserts that Japanese aid and FDI policies have been instrumental in supporting Chinese economic growth, increasing China’s interdependence with the global economy, and encouraging the PRC to join the World Trade Organization. Kojima argues that economic cooperation contributed to the PRC’s official acknowledgment in a 1998 communiqué of Japan’s positive role in maintaining regional security.

Kojima proposes that future Japanese aid should shift from supporting construction of railways and roads (where China has already made significant progress) to assisting in environmental protection and poverty reduction, where Japan can offer substantive expertise. However, he stresses that aid should be buttressed with military deterrence capabilities and hard-edged diplomacy. Indeed, the need to balance economic engagement and realpolitik may be the best history lesson these two nations can learn.

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