When Bygones Were Bygones

Today, China and Japan are at each other’s throats, but 30 years ago they were like old friends. What happened?

Getty Images
Getty Images

In an international version of the blame game, Beijing and Tokyo have frequently resorted to historical analogies in their argument about which side is responsible for the deterioration of bilateral relations. In a Jan. 22 speech, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe compared China and Japan today to Germany and Britain on the eve of World War I. Some Chinese newspapers reciprocated by likening Abe to Hitler and contrasting Germany’s recognition of its historical wrongs with Japan’s apparent lack of remorse for its wartime atrocities. And Xi Jinping’s March 28 visit to Germany, part of his first European tour as China’s president, was supposed to include a trip to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe — a not-so-subtle slap to Tokyo and one that Berlin rightly nixed.

As both sides scour through the historical record to prove each other wrong, they are ignoring their own recent past: For years after normalization of Sino-Japanese relations in 1972, the two countries worked closely together. Japan played an essential role in China’s modernization, supplying government assistance for the development of ports, railways, electric power, water supplies, and telecommunications. Japan’s aid to China in the 1980s — $649 million on average annually between 1982 and 1989 — dwarfed that of the rest of the G-7 combined. And for its part, Beijing was less concerned with Japan’s past wrongdoings than with forging closer economic and political ties.

One interesting feature of the Sino-Japanese relationship in the 1980s was the intensity and the intimacy of the political dialogue, reflected in the frequency of summits, which happened roughly annually from the late 1970s. (There hasn’t been a Sino-Japanese summit since 2008). One such summit took place exactly 30 years ago, when Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone visited Beijing for talks with Chinese policymakers, including paramount leader Deng Xiaoping. Records of this trip — published for the first time in the Digital Archive of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars’ Cold War International History Project — make for striking reading, so different are they from the sea of bitterness that engulfs the Sino-Japanese relationship today.

After coming to power in the late 1970s, Deng promised the Japanese that he would "let bygones be bygones." His commitment to developing close relations with Tokyo ushered in the golden age of Sino-Japanese cooperation. When Deng and Nakasone met in March 1984, they stayed clear of memories of war. And they did not mention any of the poisons of Sino-Japanese relations — Japanese textbooks that the Chinese believed whitewashed memories of the war, or ownership of the disputed Senkakus in the East China Sea, islands administered by Japan but claimed by China, which calls them the Diaoyu.

Instead, Deng and Nakasone turned their attention to the big picture. Japan and China, Deng said, needed to look "further, longer, and wider" in developing relations into the 21st century. This was "more important than all other issues." Nakasone told his Chinese counterparts that better relations between Japan and China would both "stabilize the Asia-Pacific region" and become "a powerful pillar for world peace." The two neighbors, Nakasone argued, "have many reasons to cooperate and no reasons to clash."

The summit provided an occasion for discussions on regional issues, none more important than stability on the Korean Peninsula. Then, as now, Pyongyang held its neighbors in suspense by engaging in provocations like assassinating three senior South Korean politicians and 18 others in Burma. The Chinese, while claiming limited influence with the North Korean regime, recognized their "obligation" to encourage a dialogue between Pyongyang and other players, including the Japanese.

This dialogue did not lead to any immediate results, but it helped improve the general climate in Northeast Asia, making possible such later developments as China’s 1992 rapprochement with South Korea. And its existence was a sign of mutual trust between the two sides. "We believe it is better to engage in dialogue than not to engage in dialogue," then Chinese Foreign Minister Wu Xueqian told his Japanese counterpart, Shintaro Abe, who accompanied Nakasone to Beijing. Shintaro Abe, the father of current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, also spoke about "good faith," keeping lines of communication open, and "negotiated solutions" to bilateral and regional problems. These were all obvious points, yet the diplomatic bluster evinced by today’s Abe suggests that common sense is not necessarily a hereditary trait.

Nor is the talent for subtle analysis passed from generation to generation. Earlier Chinese leaders objected to Nakasone’s repeated visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, which honors millions of Japanese war dead, including 14 Class A war criminals, but they did not conclude from these visits that Nakasone was a fascist and certainly did not bar him from coming to China, as Beijing did to Abe after his December 2013 appearance at the shrine. Then Premier Zhao Ziyang was careful to distinguish between such "militarist actions" and the general direction of Japan’s foreign policy, a distinction lost on the current generation of Chinese policymakers. 

But the Sino-Japanese quarrel has always been as much about domestic politics as about international grievances. In the 1980s, the Chinese Communist Party’s domestic legitimacy was in even greater question than it is today: Runaway inflation, worsening corruption, and skyrocketing crime put the Chinese reformers under a lot of pressure. Yet Deng did not intentionally spoil relations with neighbors to distract from domestic difficulties. Likewise, Nakasone, who presided over a relatively weak faction within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, had to play a constant balancing game between party stalwarts to keep his premiership afloat. Yet he also conducted a skillful foreign policy, befriending U.S. President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and pushing for breakthroughs with South Korea, China, and — inconceivably at the time — the Soviet Union.

It is the people who were different, though, not the times. Deng and Nakasone had witnessed firsthand how moral posturing, warmongering, and ultimatums can lead nations to ruin. This shared knowledge allowed the two leaders to distinguish statesmanship from politics and see the big picture, an ability that Abe and Xi have conspicuously failed to demonstrate.

In late February, the National People’s Congress, China’s rubber-stamp parliament, proclaimed the establishment of a national day of remembrance for the Nanjing Massacre, which saw Japanese troops slaughter hundreds of thousands of Chinese in late 1937 and early 1938. While remembrance is generally a good thing, this move is more about politics, and amid renewed Sino-Japanese tensions it will only lead to further acrimony. Both sides have abused the memory of the war for political ends and are purposefully forgetting that China and Japan have not always been enemies.

But in 1984, when China and Japan were much closer to each other than today, they looked to the future, not to the past. Rescuing this forgotten age from the clutches of historical amnesia is a step toward ensuring that China’s and Japan’s reciprocal demonization does not become a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Sergey Radchenko is a professor of international politics and director of research at the School of Law and Politics at Cardiff University. He is the author, most recently, of Unwanted Visionaries: The Soviet Failure in Asia at the End of the Cold War. Twitter: @DrRadchenko

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