Chinese and Japanese students hold sign language exchange activities at a school for the hearing impaired on May 19 in Nanjing, east China's Jiangsu Province (XINHUA)
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the signing of the China-Japan Treaty of Peace and Friendship. Over the past four decades, people-to-people exchanges between the two countries have deepened and economic relations have become closer than ever before.
Despite the twists and turns in recent years, bilateral political ties are beginning to warm at an important point in history as international relations undergo unprecedented changes, which bring about great opportunities for the future development of the Sino-Japanese relationship. It is thus necessary to reaffirm the importance of China-Japan relations, review and analyze previous experiences and lessons, and look ahead to new prospects for bilateral ties in the future.
The real significance of any major event in international politics can only be fully comprehended when viewed in the context of history. Similarly, we should observe contemporary bilateral relations from this perspective, and their place in the post-war international order can help us more accurately grasp their importance.
China-Japan relations are dominated by several key features. China and Japan are neighboring countries separated only by a narrow strip of water with a long history of traditional friendship. The two nations have maintained close contact for centuries, while their cultural similarities are embodied in their bilateral relations. But the cruelty of the war of aggression the Japanese militarists waged against China in modern times left an indelible mark on the relationship between the two peoples. In the new era, the shared responsibility for peace and prosperity in Asia and the world at large demands closer cooperation between the two major economies.
These characteristics, as well as their shared history, determine that the development of China and Japan is closely linked. Additionally, regional stability and prosperity rely largely on the development of these two economies. The main task for contemporary Sino-Japanese relations is to fully emphasize the positive factors of the past and to heal the wounds of war in a bid to collectively build a better regional and international order.
In the 1970s, China and Japan began to extricate their bilateral relations from the shackles placed on them by the Japanese war of aggression and later the Cold War. In 1972, through the Sino-Japanese Joint Statement, the two countries put an end to the abnormal state of affairs that had existed for many years and normalized their relations. The signing of the China-Japan Treaty of Peace and Friendship in 1978 validated the principles laid out in the Sino-Japanese Joint Statement. Moreover, it confirmed basic legal norms between the two countries and in international affairs. In addition to the conformity to the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence (mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, non-interference in each other's internal affairs, equality, mutual benefit and peaceful coexistence) and the principles of the Charter of the United Nations, the two countries should in their mutual relations settle all disputes by peaceful means, with neither seeking hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region or in any other region, and with each opposed to efforts by any other country or group of countries to establish such hegemony. The scope of these principles is not solely focused on bilateral relations, but also on peace and stability in Asia and the world, the significance of which is to reaffirm the rules of the modern international order in the form of a bilateral treaty.
Thinking about the Treaty itself and the development of China-Japan relations thereafter from the broader perspective of human history and the post-war international order, it is easy to get lost by focusing only on bilateral relations, while ignoring the lessons of history may endanger the development of bilateral relations in the future.
Therefore, at the threshold of an era when humankind faces historic choices, it is of great significance not only for the development of bilateral relations but also for the construction of a just international order to reinterpret the meaning and role of the Treaty today.
Growing economic interdependence and flourishing people-to-people exchanges between China and Japan in the past four decades should have spilled over into more cordial political relations, but in reality, increasingly tense diplomacy has dominated the shape of bilateral relations and has given rise to the concept of "cold politics, hot economy" in the past 20 years.
The political issues in bilateral relations are manifested in three key aspects: history, territory, and the construction of the international order. Complex as these issues are, their origins all lie in ideological concepts.
In the pursuit of normalization, neither side became too embroiled in historical issues. Due to the need for a strategic counterbalance to hegemony, both sides chose to focus on maintaining normal relations and future development. Former Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka's apology for the war may have been deemed unsatisfactory by the Chinese people, but it was nonetheless hard won. Japan's left wing remained strong in the 1970s, and this set the stage for both Tanaka's apology and for China to believe that the Japanese side would deeply reflect on its wartime crimes. But later, right-wing conservative forces in Japan gradually took control of Japanese politics and set about undermining historical facts, human morality and basic international jurisprudence on historical issues, leading to the deadlock in China-Japan relations.
Territorial and maritime disputes also arose primarily from Japan's misconception about history and the nature of international relations. The attitude of right-wing conservatives toward history determined that they would protect the legacy of Japan's imperial expansion on territorial issues, evidenced by island disputes with China and the Republic of Korea.
The United States, out of strategic necessity to divide other regions in order to safeguard its own hegemony, arbitrarily advocated the concept of "interests first" in international relations. Some in Japan began to talk of the irrelevance of the China-Japan friendship and put Japanese interests at the center of the country's diplomacy. Against this backdrop, Japan adopted a series of measures that aggravated disputes and endangered China-Japan relations.
As the inheritor of the genes of imperial politics, right-wing forces in Japan still cling to the thinking of 19th-century imperialism, pursuing dominant power or hegemony as the core of regional policies and as a theory to be applied to international affairs. China and Japan once cooperated closely to promote regional cooperation in East Asia and to build an East Asian community in the 1990s, but Japan's ambition to take the lead made such a project fraught with difficulty.
Faced in the new century with the global strategy of the George W. Bush administration and the subsequent Pivot to Asia strategy proposed by former U.S. President Barack Obama, Japan chose to seek regional dominance or hegemony by following the practices of the United States. Collaborating with the United States to suppress China became a priority in diplomacy, and Sino-Japanese relations were caught in a trap of strategic confrontation.
Peace and prosperity
Improvements in the China-Japan relationship result on the one hand from the awakening of all parties to the importance of bilateral ties following recent years of stalemate, while on the other hand they are the direct consequence of the protectionist America First policy of the Donald Trump administration, which has damaged the Shinzo Abe administration's confidence in Washington and awoken conservatives to the reality that the containment of China is not conducive to Japan's own security and development. Whether or not this new approach can ultimately be translated into a new understanding of the global situation as a whole remains to be seen.
The United States, as the last global empire, has taken America First as its banner and aims to build a global imperial order that it hopes will ensure its hegemony forever. The rules of this order must be centered on ensuring the absolute interests of the United States, and this has clearly upset the balance of the whole world. Simultaneously, however, China has suggested building a community with a shared future for mankind to promote a human society in which equality, mutual benefit and common development in accordance with the post-war UN Charter are the predominant features.
China's wisdom is highly consistent with the basic tenets of the Treaty signed 40 years ago. The best future for the development of Sino-Japanese relations is in strengthening cooperation and jointly promoting regional and world peace and prosperity. The two sides should also approach the long-term development of bilateral ties on this basis.
The author is a senior researcher on world studies and an op-ed contributor to Beijing Review
Copyedited by Laurence Coulton
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