Tensions over history

Published : May 06, 2005 00:00 IST

Relations between Japan and China deteriorate following protests in China against a new Japanese history textbook that glosses over the atrocities committed by Japan during the Second World War.

P.S. SURYANARYANA in Singapore

THE dramatic worsening of the relations between China and Japan over the issue of a Japanese history textbook has attracted much international attention. Anti-Japan protests erupted in China after the Japanese government approved a new history textbook, which, according to critics, glosses over atrocities committed in China by the Japanese Army during the Second World War. Rallies were attended by thousands of Chinese youth in front of the Japanese Embassy in Beijing on April 9 and there were incidents of the premises being pelted with stones. These were followed the next day by demonstrations outside Japan's consulates in some provincial Chinese cities.

The protests took place on the eve of and during the high-profile visit to India by Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, prompting international media commentary about the contrasting images of an evolving China-India rapprochement and a growing Beijing-Tokyo hiatus. In the process, neither the momentous China-India engagement nor the significant slide in Beijing-Tokyo ties came to be noticed as two distinctive trends. An overlap, if any, between these two trends is the result of the new globalisation of politics in an increasingly interdependent world.

The groundswell of Chinese anger over the new Japanese school book was reported to have taken other forms as well: attacks on some Japanese business establishments in China and an "assault" on two Japanese nationals for the mere act of identifying their nationality. However, the violence was checked effectively by the Chinese law-enforcing authorities.

While the main rallying theme of the protesters was the demand that Tokyo rectify the history textbook and atone for the atrocities of imperial Japan during the Second World War, other subjects, too, were raised. In the main, these related to opposition to Japan's proactive bid to become a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council with the same prerogatives as the present permanent members such as China and others (Frontline, December 31, 2004).

The protest rallies were preceded by an unprecedented outpouring of anti-Japan sentiments in a significant online poll conducted by a newspaper in China over the issue of whether or not Tokyo should be given a permanent seat in the U.N. Security Council. Cascading millions of anti-Japan votes were recorded in the poll.

The inter-related aspects of the protests were that Japan was not only "unrepentant" about its aggression and atrocities during the Second World War but also "arrogant" enough to try and "whitewash" that history. Tokyo's relatively new proactive diplomacy of making its military presence felt outside its shores - although through participation in "non-combat" humanitarian missions in Iraq and the like - has also come to be seen in China as a smokescreen for a possible revival of the much-hated Japanese militarism. Japan's view of its own imperial history and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's frequent visits to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, seen externally as a symbol of militarism, have often rankled in the minds of the people of China and the two Koreas.

AS China and Japan inevitably found themselves arguing over the latest protest rallies, a top official in Tokyo said the magnitude of the latent anti-Japanese sentiment among the Chinese people was "beyond our understanding". The offending textbook itself, according to the Japanese, was used only by a minority of schools in Japan.

Japan has demanded an apology from China, but at the time of writing, has received none. Japan's other demands included a "full explanation" by China and a "description of the Chinese government's decision on measures to protect Japanese nationals and to prevent the recurrence of this kind of event".

Beijing, on the other hand, placed the onus squarely on Tokyo to "properly handle the history of Japanese aggression against China and other major issues of principle bearing on the feelings of the Chinese people".

These pertain to an array of issues ranging from Japan's suspected tendencies of "neo-imperialism", despite Tokyo's substantial economic cooperation with Beijing, to the lingering ill-effects of the chemical weapons left behind in China by imperial Japan's military forces at the end of the Second World War.

Official China distanced itself from the "excessive behaviour" of a few anti-Japan protesters and maintained that the relevant authorities had acted promptly to protect the Japanese nationals and institutions on Chinese territory. Koizumi and Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura sought meetings with Chinese President Hu Jintao and Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing respectively to defuse the crisis.

On the whole, there is little or no evidence to view the latest downturn in the China-Japan relationship as a defining event signifying an immediate tectonic shift in the geo-strategic politics of Asia. While the future course of Beijing-Tokyo ties remains unclear now, neither China nor Japan has, at the time of writing, indicated any desire to part ways permanently.

Some international observers have, however, tried to see India as an additional factor in the emerging complications between Tokyo and Beijing.

Indeed, as a matter of simple tour schedules, Wen Jiabao did make an authoritative observation, while still being in New Delhi, in regard to Japan. On April 12, he asked Japan to face squarely the realities of its historical baggage and attune to the present times. The timing of Wen Jiabao's comment, however, should not be seen in the context of the Sino-Indian strategic partnership. To do so would be to miss the big picture as regards Beijing's bonhomie with New Delhi, at one level, and it's troubled equation with Tokyo, at another.

The Sino-Indian rapprochement should not be seen as a critical factor in the deterioration of China's relationship with Japan, and what merits citing is the manner in which New Delhi and Tokyo have, in recent months, made common cause over their independent aspirations to become permanent members of the U.N. Security Council.

As of now, the triangular equations among China, the United States and Japan, rather than any triangle involving Beijing, Tokyo and New Delhi, are of considerable consequence to the new stalemate in Sino-Japanese interactions.

Looking at the "isosceles triangle in which the U.S.-Japan side is much shorter than the U.S.-China and the Japan-China sides," Mike M. Mochizuki, an expert on Tokyo-Washington ties, noted recently that Beijing had for several years pursued a "version of triangular diplomacy rather effectively: avoid having bad relations with both Washington and Tokyo at the same time".

In a sense, the present downswing in Beijing-Tokyo ties coincides with a "constructive" and "cooperative" phase in China's engagement of the U.S. even in the context of persistent divergences in their perceptions of the Taiwan question. However, as Yang Jiemian, Vice-President of the Shanghai Institute for International Studies, emphasised recently, "China will further readjust its relations with the allies of the U.S., that is, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Thailand and the Philippines in the [East Asia] region" in the specific context of the current U.S. involvement in Iraq. Now, the process of "readjustment" of China's relationship with Japan, or rather the lack of a dynamic engagement at the political level, will be carried out in the context of the recent protests.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment