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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:31 03/09/2007
Debate: Commentary (September 19, 2002)

Thirtieth Anniversary of Sino-Japanese Ties: Still Many Rivers to Cross

J. Sean Curtin (Professor, Japanese Red Cross University)

September 2002 marks the thirtieth anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between mainland China and Japan. From a purely economic perspective, current Sino-Japanese links appear to be in robust shape. In the space of just three decades, Japan has become China's top trading partner with commerce predicted to continue growing at a strong pace. Total trade volume between the two countries rose 8.8% year-on-year to 53.931 billion US dollars in the first seven months of 2002. Chinese exports to Japan grew 3.1% year-on-year to 25.73 billion US dollars during the same period, but were outpaced by a 14.5% year-on-year rise in Japanese imports worth 28.201 billion US dollars. However, these rosy economic statistics conceal serious problems which lie at the very heart of present bilateral ties. These non-economic issues need to be urgently addressed in order to ensure a long-term and secure bond between Japan and its mighty neighbour. In the Twenty-first Century, the development of a good working relationship with China should have the highest priority on Tokyo's foreign policy agenda.

During the thirtieth anniversary month, there were various signs indicating that Sino-Japanese relations were not in as good a shape as they ought to be. In early September, the Japanese media widely reported that Chinese President Jiang Zemin snubbed Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi by refusing to take a telephone call from him regarding Koizumi's historic visit to North Korea. The Chinese action apparently stemmed from lingering resentment about the Japanese premier's visit to the Yasukuni Shrine on 21 April 2002 as well as an earlier trip in August 2001. This Shinto shrine is dedicated to the Japanese war dead, but also honours 14 Class-A war criminals. The Chinese interpret official visits by the Prime Minister as a sign that Japan is not truly repentant for the atrocities it committed during World War II. Visits to this shrine by any high ranking minister always anger both China and Korea. Koizumi's April 2002 visit was particularly ill-timed as it came just before Japan and Korea jointly hosted the World Cup.

In September, the media was also awash with rumours that a proposed prime-ministerial trip to China to commemorate thirty years of ties had been postponed or cancelled by the Chinese side. However, the reports were denied by the Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda who claimed that at the present juncture there had not actually been any plans for Koizumi to visit to China.

On the level of the ordinary Japanese citizen, Sino-Japanese relations also appeared to have deteriorated during 2002. A Yomiuri Shimbun opinion poll released in September 2002, showed that 55% of Japanese don't trust China, compared to only 37% who do. This was the lowest rating for this question since it was first asked in 1988 and marked the first time that there were more Japanese who did not trust China that those who did. Back in the initial 1988 survey, a healthy 76% of people said they trusted China. Additionally, only 24% of the Japanese polled currently think that Sino-Japanese relations can be described as good. This is also an all time low.

On a more positive note, when asked to evaluate 30 years of Japan-China ties, 59% of respondents expressed favourable views compared with just 32% showing negative sentiment. Regarding whether they thought Japan and China had deepened their mutual understanding, opinion was more evenly divided with 46% believing this had occurred, opposing 44% who held a negative assessment. Concerning Japan's recent diplomatic stance toward China, 51% disapproved of it, compared with 38% who gave it a positive evaluation.

Pollsters attribute the poor ratings to recent disputes that have damaged relations between the two countries. These include Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's controversial visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, the revisionist history textbook issue and the forceful removal of North Korean asylum-seekers by Chinese police from the compound of the Japanese Consulate General in Shenyang.

When former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka went to Beijing in 1972 to normalize relations with China, there was a great sense of optimism that a bright new future awaited both nations. Three decades later, while economic ties are strong, other aspects of the relationship are in desperate need of attention. Sincerely confronting the issue of wartime wrongs committed in China will not be an easy task for Japan, but it is an essential act required to develop proper and long-lasting Sino-Japanese relations.

Sunday 29 September 2002 marks the exact thirtieth anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between the two nations. This day seems the perfect opportunity for Japanese leaders to begin a renewed and genuine effort to heal the wounds of the past. Further high-profile visits by Japanese politicians to the Yasukuni Shrine should certainly be avoided as they deeply offend China and damage bilateral ties. Prime Minister Koizumi might also want to ponder the wisdom of the Chinese proverb that states, "You can hardly make a friend in a year, but you can easily offend one in an hour."

Copyright © Japanese Institute of Global Communications