The 50th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic relations between Japan and People’s Republic of China comes at a difficult moment in recent history for the two Asian countries, marked by geopolitical tectonic shifts in the Indo-Pacific, cross-Strait tensions and the Russian invasion of Ukraine which has the potential to open the stage for status quo changes in the international arena. A complicated anniversary to celebrate, some may say, yet the half-full glass shows premises and common will for further strengthening bilateral relations and getting past certain painful moments in modern history.
The political relations between the two countries have also debuted – and remained – on the premises of mutual understanding and respect, in cognisance with the three principles on the restoration of Sino-Japanese diplomatic relations. In order to establish diplomatic relations with Beijing, Japan agreed that the People's Republic of China is the only legitimate government that represents China, that Taiwan is an inalienable part of the Chinese territory and that the peace treaty signed between Japan and the Chang-Kaishek government is illegal and invalid and therefore must be abolished. Consequently, the Japanese Prime Minister Kakue Tanaka visited China on September 25, 1972 and, only four days later, on September 29, the Chinese and Japanese governments signed a joint declaration, achieving the normalization of diplomatic relations. While relations between the two countries have occasionally been strained by certain events, such as high level dignitaries’ visits to the Yasukumi Shrine, considered offensive by Beijing, Sino-Japanese relations could be thought of as having maintained momentum.
Certainly, the 50 years of diplomatic relations between the two countries have been reflected in the recent anniversary. Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida exchanged congratulatory messages on this occasion. While the diplomatic protocol dictates high level dignitaries of both countries exchange such congratulatory messages on particularly important occasions, they may only refer to the past cooperation or could add a nuance of perspective, by referring to the positive expectations of future cooperation. Generally, shall leaders avail of the opportunity to express views regarding the future of their bilateral relations it is considered an omen of good will and future deepening of diplomatic relations. As presented below, both President Xi and Prime Minister Kishida evoke the successful milestones of their bilateral relations and refer to the future cooperation, thus indicating progress is expected by both sides.
According to the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, President Xi stressed that “with the joint efforts of the two governments and peoples, the two sides have successively reached four political documents and a series of important common understandings, and steadily deepened exchanges and cooperation in various fields, bringing important benefits to the two countries and peoples, and contributing to peace and development in the region and beyond.” The Chinese leader added that he “would like to work with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida (…) to steer the two sides toward building a China-Japan relationship that answers the call of the new era in line with the trends of the times.”
Only one month earlier, in August 2022, the Chinese President sent a message to the Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida praying for his speedily recovery from COVID-19. On that occasion, the Chinese leader similarly stated he is ready to work with Kishida to build relations that meet the needs of the new era.
Japan’s Kishida stressed in his congratulatory message that “Japan and China have made remarkable progress in cooperation in a wide range of fields, including economy, culture and personnel exchanges. It is of great significance for the two sides to join hands to open up a new future for Japan-China relations.” The Nippon Premier shared the Chinese President’s optimistic view about the future of the bilateral relations between the two countries, noting that “Japan is ready to work with China to build a constructive and stable Japan-China relationship in the next 50 years, and jointly promote peace and prosperity in the two countries, the region and the world at large.”
In his congratulatory message addressed to Premier Kishida, the Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang echoed the positive note of further strengthening the Sino-Japanese relations: “China is ready to work with Japan to maintain peaceful and friendly coexistence, safeguard the political foundation of bilateral relations, deepen exchanges and cooperation in various fields, properly manage problems and disagreements, and promote sustained and sound progress of China-Japan relations with the 50th anniversary of normalization of diplomatic relations as a new starting point.”
Undoubtedly, the exchange of messages between the leaders of the two regional and global powers reveals the mutual desire of the two parties to build on their past 50 years of bilateral relations, adding an impetus for a constructive, stable and peaceful region and world in the current context of general instability and dynamic alliances. Clearly, the exchange of messages could also be interpreted as a silver lining to the clouds which have at times covered the Sino-Japanese diplomatic relations.
Besides the cordial exchange of messages between the two countries’ leaders, the 50th anniversary was similarly marked by multiple ceremonies and events, illustrating the common will of the two peoples to further deepen their bilateral relations.
On September, 29, 2022, a Ceremony for the 50th Anniversary of the Normalization of Relations between China and Japan has been held in Tokyo, with the participation of the Japanese figure skater Yuzuru Hanyu, a most appreciated athlete to both the Chinese and Japanese public.
On the same day the messages written by the Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Chinese President Xi Jinping were read out at another event celebrating the Golden Anniversary, offered by the Japan Business Federation, described by analysts as Tokyo's most powerful business lobby, also known as Keidanren. It should be noted, however, that the absence of Prime Minister Kishida from the event has generated certain speculations on behalf of certain analysts. The Keidanren however celebration hosted the Japanese Foreign Affairs Minister Yoshimasa Hayashim, the former Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda and the Chinese Ambassador to Japan, Kong Xuanyou.
The Tokyo ceremony was echoed in Beijing at the Diaoyutai guesthouse, in the presence of senior Beijing officials and the Japanese ambassador to China, Hideo Tarumi.
The “Japan-China Exchange Festival 2022“ also debuted on 24 September, similarly evoking the excellent people-to-people exchanges between the two countries. The two-day event at the Yoyogi Park Event Square in Tokyo has been opened in the presence of the Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs Maritoshi Akimoto.
The musical performance “The Beginning and Hope of a New 50 Years” has also been hosted in Tokyo, expressing Japan’s deep sympathy for cooperation with China in the arts and culture fields.
According to Southeast Asian media, the head of the Institute of Japanese Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Yang Bojiang, commented that “future bilateral relations are very important, be it private sector exchanges or strategic dialogue between governments”. Known to have influence over the Chinese government policy towards Japan, the head of the Institute might have signaled the private sector and government-level dialogues could possibly complement each other in times of effervescence.
Clearly, the Sino-Japanese relations have not lacked effervescent moments. A recent “Global Times” article, a daily affiliated with the Chinese Communist Party, stated in an editorial on September 28, 2022, that the strategic distrust and doubt between China and Japan was unprecedented in the last 50 years. The newspaper also argued that Japan and the United States were trying to contain China.
Indeed, the Sino-Japanese ties could be characterized as complex and often complicated, 50 years after the two Asian countries have normalized relations, part of the process that witnessed China’s open up policy and generated its stronger presence into the international fold.
Among the most significant matters that continue to fuel the complex bilateral relations between Japan and China, one could consider the manner in which each country relates to its recent history, a very sensitive political problem in the Sino-Japanese relations. According to the media in Beijing, since 2001 there have been cases of “falsification of the contents of the history texts and the history of the aggression in China by the Japanese, ignoring the historical reality, while the consecutive visits of Koizumi to the Yasukumi Shrine have very negatively influenced Sino-Japanese relations”. A comparative study of the Asia–Pacific Research Center, Stanford University on the Japanese, Chinese, Korean and US textbooks described 99% of Japanese textbooks as having a "muted, neutral, and almost bland" tone and "by no means avoid some of the most controversial wartime moments". According to the study, it was only the 1%, printed by one publisher only, that used "inflamatory language and imagery"; by chance, the greater media attention focused on the minority publisher.
The Diaoyu/ Senkaku Islands similarly constitute a contested matter in the Sino-Japanese relations. The Diaoyu/ Senkaku Archipelago is located in the East China Sea and – according to the Chinese side – has been part of the Chinese territory since ancient times and – along with Taiwan island – represent an inalienable part of the Chinese territory. Under the current status quo, as sanctioned by International Law, the Senkaku Islands are part of Japan’s territory, leaving little room for anything but historical – not territorial – debates.
The security cooperation between Japan and the United States has also generated frictions in the Sino-Japanese relations. In 1996 Japan and the United States published the "Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation", thus modifying the "Guidelines for Defensive Cooperation" issued in 1978. In September 1997, the Japanese and US parties have officially defined their new guidelines for cooperation in defense matters, ratified by Japan’s Nation Diet on May 24, 2004. For China, such evolution marks the positioning of a new security arrangement, marking an intensified security cooperation between Japan and the US. In Beijing’s eyes, the above-mentioned dynamics may concern Taiwan and also signals a direction of development of the Japanese military forces. Certainly, as a sovereign state, Japan considers it a national prerogative to diplomatically engage with every other sovereign nation within the confines of Art. 9 of the Constitution of Japan and often recalls its own actions and the Japan-United States cooperation as a consequence of the increasingly assertive Chinese military development.
The existence of certain contested matters in the Sino-Japanese relations does neither close the door nor impend the mutual will for improvement in their bilateral ties. One clear evidence in this regard is represented by some of the already mitigated bilateral aspects between Japan and China.
One such matter is the compensation of war damages. During the negotiations on the normalization of Sino-Japanese relations held in 1972, the Japanese government agreed to make a thorough examination of conscience on the responsibility for the damage caused during the Second World War. The Chinese government thus abandoned the request for compensation for war damages to Japan, inserting a passage in this sense in the "Sino-Japanese Joint Declaration". Subsequently, the Third Session of the Fifth National People's Assembly approved, in 1978, "The Treaty of Peace and Friendship between China and Japan", confirming in a codified form the decision to abandon the claim for war damages to Japan.
The bilateral relations between Japan and China represent a testimony of mutual will of two neighbouring countries, bound by multiple cultural and historical similarities, which, following the normalization of their bilateral relations have met a generally positive and evolutionary trend. Such dynamics should undoubtedly represent a reference for the next 50 years of diplomatic relations between the two countries. Provided the current complex developments in the international arena, it is the high time both China and Japan accept that only the intensification of cooperation will stop the intensification of militarisation and will guarantee peace and stability in their region as a component of the peace and stability of the world. Most certainly, the fruits of such cooperation will not be shared only by Japan and China, but by the entire region and the world.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the official policy, position or view of IRSEA.