Reconciliation at the crossroads: Hindering factors in Sino-Japanese relations

China and Japan have countless reasons to reconcile and be friends. If only their respective egos and versions of history didn’t get in the way.

Reconciliation at the crossroads:  Hindering factors in Sino-Japanese relations AFP Photo

With a joint communiqué in 1972, China’s longstanding demand for war reparations from Japan was withdrawn, marking the normalization of diplomatic relations and the start of reconciliation between the two Asian powers. Nevertheless, historical issues and controversies still pop up; indeed, recalling historical memories is inevitable. Antagonism and mistrust still cloud bilateral relations between Beijing and Tokyo despite reconciliation. The anarchical condition of the international system and human nature can explain this contradiction, which is influenced by perceived threats and the balance of power today. In consequence, Japan and China have a security dilemma.

A history of relations

Asia, a region with numerous unresolved disputes, is sprinkled with historical frictions and tensions over power competition between nations. The “Asian Paradox” of growing wealth but lingering territorial disputes and new power rivalries has left countries in the region with a feeling of mistrust. The bilateral relationship between Japan and China is not an oddity; it has never been smooth, with relations between the two nations often described with the phrase “hot economics, cold politics.” Despite their geographic proximity and influence upon each other, Japan and China have experienced frequent turbulence over their 1,000-year history, and things between the two nations remain tense to this day. As Richard C Bush, an American expert on Chinese affairs, wrote: “The shadow of the 21st century past darkens the 21st century future.”

The notion of reconciliation in East Asia itself is raised due to past conflicts, the actions of colonialism and war crimes before the end of World War II, leaving painful memories in the hearts of many. War crimes by Imperial Japan are a major obstacle to the improvement of bilateral relations. In examining the dynamics of the Japan-China relationship, it is necessary to look through the lens of history, as both countries view their security and policy through their own lens of historical experience. In the first and second Sino-Japanese wars, bilateral relations were dominated by conflict and hatred, and the events and tragedies of these periods were what caused the notion of reconciliation in the first place. This includes the Nanjing Massacre, when Japanese soldiers slaughtered at least 200,000 Chinese civilians and war prisoners.

For a short period after World War II, the relationship between Japan and China was almost nonexistent. But in the 1970s, China began to establish diplomatic relations with other nations, including Japan. The visit of Japanese Prime Minister Tanaka Kakuei to China in September 1972 concluded with the signing of the Japan-China Joint Communiqué, marking the official normalization of relations. The statement announced the “termination of previous abnormal relations,” and said the Japanese government was “keenly aware of Japan's responsibility for causing enormous damages to the Chinese people in the past through war, and deeply reproaches itself.” Subsequently, after the normalization of relations, trade between the two nations began. In August 1978, the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between Japan and China was established, based on the same principles of the joint communiqué. The communiqué also contained an expression of apology, which was a starting point for reconciliation as well as trade and economic cooperation, political security and diplomatic relations. Unfortunately, normalization did little to create truly better bilateral relations between Japan and China more than four decades later, putting reconciliation in jeopardy.

How power relates to reconciliation

In classical realism, nations seek to increase and maintain power. It is the main and crucial interest of a nation-state and, in this regard, we argue that it is in the economic, political and indirect cultural interests of Japan to reconcile with China. The many dimensions and levels of reconciliation support stability, as there would be no held grudges, confrontations or public protests. This applies to the government-to-government and peopleto-people levels. Peace can heal old wounds and grudges. After all, the longstanding goal of reconciliation itself is to create perpetual peace and prevent future conflicts.

Looking at Germany’s reconciliation with the victims of its aggression, reconciliation indeed supports power in the sense that it can create peace and stability, giving a nation the chance to gain more power. Therefore, reconciliation is a form of strong power; making reparations for conflicts also shapes a nation’s image. However, in the case of Japan, despite the imperative interest to reconcile with China, the process has been difficult. Historical issues and memories between Japan and its neighbors are still raw, particularly with China. In addition, as much as reconciliation and cooperation can be hoped for, realists see interactions between nations as still taking place inside an anarchical system.

Therefore, reconciliation between Japan and China is not an easy task, as trust is lacking. The absence of an authority or mediator beyond the nations hampers dispute settlement. The “self-help” principle in classical realism prompts nations to always try to defend themselves at any cost. Even though there might be cooperation, there is no guarantee that it will remain stable. The essence of reconciliation includes elements to overcome fear and mistrust, and to heal old wounds by letting go of painful memories from past conflicts. In the bilateral relationship between Japan and China, the deep-rooted memories of the past have only encouraged mutual mistrust and outrage.

Human nature

The lives of men, Thomas Hobbes observed, are dominated by “cruelty, brutish egoism and unconstrained passion that is directed by insecurity and fear in the state of nature”; men

Historical issues and memories between Japan and its neighbors are still raw, particularly with China.

are insecure and mistrust each other. Authors have tried to draw a link between the principles of human nature and the behavior of nations. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been building upon Japanese nationalism; the desire for the country to be collectively strong is part of his agenda. The driving principles of selfinterest are seen as being rooted in the human nature of egoism. Abe himself is conservative and nationalistic, and individuals or groups, when they act politically, will inevitably be driven by narrow self-interests.

In 2015, on the 70th anniversary of Japan's surrender in World War II, Abe subtly changed the context of the official apology for Japan's wartime aggression, showing reluctance to deliver the clear apology that China and South Korea had demanded. Abe’s statement invited sharp criticism from Beijing. Xinhua, China’s official news agency, said the statement was “a fine line with linguistic tricks, attempting to please his [Abe’s] right-wing base … and avoid further damage in Japan’s ties with its neighbors.”

“Japan is back” – Abe’s famous line – has been viewed by China as an effort to shape a bigger role for Japan on the global stage. Indeed, Abe does project strong nationalism and patriotism. Not only that, Abe is viewed as a historical revisionist, demonstrated by his 2012 visit to Yasukuni Shrine, the lack of remorse for Japan's wartime history and ignorance toward the issue of comfort women. The membership of more than half of Abe’s cabinet in Nippon Kaigi, a Japanese nationalist association, also points to the same conclusion that the behavior of nations is a projection of the human nature of the people governing them.

Historical national interests

Japan’s and China’s overlapping claims over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands is also a hot and unresolved issue since the end of World War II. Both countries are fully aware that the islands’ value is a mixture of national and business interests. Different interpretations of history result in different versions of claims, and the military presence of both claimant nations in the area could worsen the dispute and increase the possibility of armed conflict, making it one of the major factors in the deterioration of Sino-Japanese relations that could hinder reconciliation.

The territorial dispute over the Senkaku/ Diaoyu Islands reached its peak in 2012, when Japan purchased the islands from a private owner. For China, this was seen as Japan “solidifying control.” It triggered massive protests and an anti-Japanese movement in China. The unpleasant history of Japanese aggression undoubtedly increased the emotions of Chinese over the territorial dispute. Both Japan and China have their own versions of claiming sovereignty over the islands – based on law but also on history. Japan says it discovered and inhabited the Senkaku Islands beginning in 1895, while China says the Diaoyu Islands were recorded in Chinese literature dating back to the 15th century. From a classical realism perspective, the clash over territory is an interplay of material forces. There is competition for oil and gas reserves, but the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands are also an important trade route. Therefore, the islands have become a core national interest for both claimants. Territory is part of a nation’s sovereignty, and sovereignty means having power and control over its own future. The loss of territory implies the loss of legal control that will affect national policy. Territorial disputes remain a primary source of conflict and violence between nations, and are the main reason nations have gone to war. This is in line with the principle of classical realism, where the behaviors of nations are essentially rational egoism animated by national interests.

Aside from defending territorial integrity, the interest in owning the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands is a result of greed and power. This is in accordance with classical realism’s belief that the behavior of nations is a reflection of human nature, in which human nature is selfish and will always lust for power and domination. But the competition for the islands is more than that. Not only fueled by heightened nationalism within both China and Japan, the

AFP Photo/Pool for The Yomiuri Shimbun

dispute is also triggered by historical ideas and memories. China argues that Japan stole the islands during the First Sino-Japanese War; Japan contends that the islands are inherited territory.

According to Hobbes, states are motivated by competition, diffidence and glory; the islands (Senkaku to Japan and Diaoyu to China) are also seen as a battle of national identity and pride. The legal arguments over the history of ownership show a condition of anarchy in the international political arena, where there is no higher authority to settle the dispute. The self-help nature of nations seen by classical realism is projected in the strong desire to defend the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands as a national interest.

Mutual threat perception

The historical dimension of threat perception refers to the past experiences of particular nation-states, which contribute to how they perceive threats. According to Yinan He, an associate professor at Lehigh University, in the United States, reconciliation among nations is less likely if they face no common threat or present a mutual threat to each other. With Japan and China, their antagonistic positions in the bipolar international system have postured them as a mutual threat that could lead to war.

The perception of a threat is also stimulated by historical memories of war atrocities; the commemoration of the Nanjing Massacre has become a national memory in China. The continuous outrage of China over past suffering, and the scarcity of remorse by Japan, adds a historical dimension to the threat perception. China has not forgotten what Japan did to it, and has demanded that Japan perform acts of reconciliation. And China is offended by the fact that Japan has explicitly mentioned China as a matter of concern that needs to be taken into serious consideration. It indicates that China still sees Japan as a perpetrator of its suffering and humiliation in the past, and that the historical issues and controversies are still relevant, as they are still fresh in the memory of China.

For Japan, the threat perception of China comes from economic and geopolitical considerations, in the sense that China has surpassed Japan to become the world’s second-largest economy and the geographical proximity of the two countries. The rise of China has caused Japan to sense a threat, and pushed the country to increase its military capabilities. As such, there is mutual hatred and mistrust. The historical issues between Japan and China surrounding reconciliation provide a critical justification for confrontation. The cause is not the obsession with past trauma, but the ability of history to support the willingness of nations to confront one another.


It is in line with the principle of classical realism, where the behaviors of nations are essentially rational egoism animated by national interests.

The mutual perceived threat has triggered both Japan and China to strive for a balance of power, resulting in a regional security dilemma. That is because of their respective positions in a bipolar world that expects both to increase their power. Japan, in this regard, has been undergoing military reform as a response to the growing threat from China. For its part, China saw Japan’s purchase of the Senkaku/ Diaoyu Islands as a threat led by ultra-right nationalists wanting to remilitarize Japan. Beijing’s response of stepping up maritime patrols and creating the controversial Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea resulted in another response of concern from Japan. The explicit mention of China as a threat in the Japanese Defense White

China was a victim of wartime aggression and inhumane treatment at the hands of Japanese invasion forces. These wounds, while old, are still fresh in the memory of China and remain a thorn in bilateral relations.

Paper also indicates insecurity and fear over the growing assertiveness of China’s maritime activities.


Japan and China were enemies caught up in wars long ago, during Japan’s imperialist past. China was a victim of wartime aggression at the hands of Japanese invasion forces. These wounds, while old, are still fresh in the memory of China and remain a thorn in bilateral relations.

The political comeback of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2012, followed by increased tensions in the territorial dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, further increased antagonism between the two nations. While reconciliation is still on the table, there are many indications that things are actually going in the opposite direction. It is in Japan’s own interest to push for reconciliation with China in order to create stability and expand its own power, but fear and mistrust hinder reconciliation. China creates a threat perception based on war atrocities at the hands of Japan, while Japan in return perceives China as a present threat in a broader sense. This mutual threat perception has prompted the two nations to demonize each other, and foster mutual hatred among their populations.

We conclude that the bilateral relationship between Japan and China is one of “love and hate,” but tilting much more toward hate. Historical issues are an obstacle in their bilateral relationship, yet recalling history is inevitable for reconciliation. Examining the internal and external factors through the perspective of classical realism, they hinder reconciliation between Japan and China. Old wounds, with the addition of current tensions, are clearly a source of future conflict.


Lanny Surya Alfiani is a research assistant at the School of International Relations at President University in West Java Province.
Anak Agung Banyu Perwita is a professor of international relations at President University.

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