Respect China’s Red Lines
Zhang Weiwei is director of the Centre for China Development Model Research, Fudan University in Shanghai and director of the SASS Institute of China Studies, China. He was Chinese reformer Deng Xiaoping’s favorite English interpreter.
SHANGHAI—Sino-Japanese relations have never been so precarious since the two sides established diplomatic ties in 1972. Many observers now even compare the situation to that in Europe a century ago when the First World War was about to rage across the continent. This scenario may be exaggerated, as neither Beijing, nor Tokyo, nor Washington wants a war in the region. But Beijing-Tokyo relations are indeed experiencing a dangerous drift.
While the Western media seem to focus on what they perceive as a more assertive China, most Chinese blame Japan for the Sino-Japanese predicament, and the Chinese view deserves some attention.
From a Chinese perspective, the right turn in Japan’s domestic politics is the major cause for the current status of Sino-Japanese relations. This right turn is a product of three domestic developments in Japan: the country has experienced “two lost decades” which ended the proud Japanese economic miracle; the country has witnessed a string of weak leaders—literally 10 or so prime ministers replacing each other within 10 years; and the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster and other social woes have gripped much of Japanese society.
The combined economic, political and social malaises have given rise to a strong sense of insecurity among the Japanese and a growing perception that China’s rise is Japan’s potential nightmare. Given the historical grievances between the two countries, Japanese politicians like Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seem now to count on Japan’s nationalism for more domestic support.
Despite the normalization of the diplomatic ties between Beijing and Tokyo, regrettably there has never been real reconciliation between the two peoples, as there has, for instance, between France and Germany. The memory of Japan’s war atrocities remain fresh and sharp in the minds of most Chinese. After all, it’s a war that caused the deaths of some 20 million Chinese and destroyed the Chinese economy.
Yet China is still faced with an unrepentant Japan and a prime minister who even refuses to call the war an act of aggression. Just imagine how the French or the British public would react to a Germany that still used the Nazi flag and national anthem and whose chancellor and cabinet ministers still paid homage to Hitler’s shrine?
Against this background, it took only a single event like Tokyo’s decision to “nationalize” the Diaoyu (Senkaku) islands to spark a chain of strong reactions from China. Historically the Diaoyu islands, as part of Taiwan, were ceded to Japan after the Chinese empire was defeated in the first Sino-Japanese war in the 1890s. Toward the end of the Second World War, the Cairo Declaration of December 1943, issued by China, the US and Britain, demanded that Japan return Taiwan—and all other territories it had grabbed—to China.
However, China’s civil war broke out soon after, followed by the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, the Korean War of the early 1950s and the Cold War. Japan, under a peace constitution imposed by the US, became a US ally and has remained so up to now. In 1972, the US decided to return the “administrative rights” over the Diaoyu islands to Japan, which triggered sweeping protests from Beijing to Taipei to overseas Chinese communities across the world.
Beijing’s record shows that the two sides agreed to set aside the dispute when they established diplomatic ties in 1972. Chinese reformist Deng Xiaoping famously said at a press conference held in Tokyo in 1978 when the two sides signed the Peace and Friendship Treaty, “we have agreed to shelve the dispute for the future, and we believe our future generations will be more intelligent than us today in finding a mutually acceptable solution to the dispute.”
He also advocated a sensible approach to the dispute: that the two countries should defer the issue and start joint exploration (of resources in the area), which to this author, remains the most feasible option for both sides. Obviously Japan’s decision in 2012 to “nationalize” the disputed islands, as if China’s claim over the islands never existed, humiliated and angered most Chinese.
With the coming to power of President Xi Jinping, a leader more confident of himself and his country, China has shifted its overall stance from what can be called “strategic ambiguity” to “strategic clarity.”
Partly in reaction to the US “pivot to Asia” and to Japan’s rising right-wing militarism, President Xi said that China will pursue peaceful development but others should do the same. Actually, between China and Japan, there are already four legal and political documents committing both sides to solve their disputes peacefully and through negotiations. Japan’s unilateral action to “nationalize” the Diaoyu Islands was viewed by Beijing as violating this principle.
Beijing’s “strategic clarity” may be provocative to some, yet it may serve the interests of all the actors concerned to avoid strategic miscalculations, as Beijing has only stated its long-held positions in much clearer terms. In this regard, Beijing may have drawn something useful from its dealings with Taipei. Beijing officially advanced the theme of China’s “peaceful rise” (later “peaceful development”) in 2003, but it adopted an Anti-Secession Law in 2005, which binds Beijing to adopt what’s called “non-peaceful means” if Taiwan declares independence, a position that Beijing has held since 1949. The law caused uproar from Taipei and the Western media at that time. But in retrospect, the law has paved the way for the dramatic improvements in Beijing-Taipei relations we witness now.
It’s time for Japan and the other parties concerned to know Beijing’s red line—which is only a clearer expression of Beijing’s long-held position—and Beijing, Tokyo and Washington should work together to defuse the tension between China and Japan. The US could play a meaningful role as a facilitator in this regard since, after all, Washington does not share Prime Minister Abe’s position on the Second World War, and China does not openly object to the US military presence in Japan, as it is viewed by many in Beijing as a “necessary evil” to check Japan’s rising militarism, especially Japan’s possible nuclearization.
China may overtake the US as the world’s largest economy in less than a decade. In the history of the West, relations between an established power and rising power are often a zero-sum game, and European history is full of examples of such conflicts. But for the first time, it’s the rise of a non-Western power with a totally different cultural tradition. China does not have a messianic culture of converting others; it has a long culture of building the Great Wall to defend itself from others rather than colonizing others. China is the only nuclear power to openly state that it will not be the first to use nuclear weapons against other countries.
China indeed hopes to establish “a new type of major power relationship” with the US based on mutual respect for sovereignty, common interests and people-to-people friendship. But if the US treats China as an enemy, China may indeed become its enemy.
History presents an opportunity to the two countries to become friends rather than enemies, moving beyond the old logic of confrontation between established and rising powers. The two sides should grasp it and start in this direction perhaps with some meaningful initiatives to defuse Sino-Japanese tensions.