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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:32 03/09/2007
Debate: Commentary (July 15, 2003)

Is China's History Card Played Out?

Weston S. Konishi (Senior Research and Program Officer, The Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation, Washington, USA)

Over the past several years, a growing number of Chinese intellectuals have been calling for bilateral China-Japan relations to move beyond the legacy of World War II in favor of pursuing mutual long-term interests. Now, according to some experts, this view appears to be taking hold at the official level under the new leadership of President Hu Jintao.

Observers note that Chinese officials are not playing the "history card" against Japan at every opportunity. When Japan's coalition party leaders visited Beijing in May, President Hu and other officials were careful not to bring up historical problems, including Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's controversial visits to Yasukuni Shrine.

Similarly, Beijing has reacted with relative restraint as Japan has ventured out of its pacifist shell. The dispatch of Japanese naval vessels to the Indian Ocean in December 2001 and the Diet's passage of emergency legislation laws in early June produced hardly a murmur from the Chinese officialdom—in contrast to the backlash that followed Japan's review of security guidelines and theater missile defense in the late 1990s.

Beijing's supposed new emphasis on future interests with Japan is a welcome development in bilateral relations that should be encouraged. But it is too early to tell whether China's subtle hints represent a deeper policy shift or a temporary diplomatic gesture. Several key factors are yet to be determined and Tokyo would be wise to proceed cautiously until it is clear whether Beijing is fully prepared to turn a new leaf.

It is, for instance, still doubtful whether the change in Chinese attitudes toward Japan runs beyond certain circles of China's intellectual and policy elite. The forbearance displayed at the official level does not seem widespread among the general Chinese public, whose nationalist sentiment is symbiotically tied to Beijing's foreign policy.

The Chinese press, long a voice of anti-Japanese sentiment, continues to view Japan's evolving security policy with skepticism. In a June editorial, the China Peoples' Daily interpreted Japan's newly passed emergency legislation as a "protective umbrella" for remilitarization and "war preparation."

If China's elite circles are committed to revamping relations with Japan, then they must begin to make the case with the general public. This effort is not yet obvious. Unless a significant segment of the public begins to view Japan in a different light, China's leadership is unlikely to forego using the history card to drum up nationalist support.

Another factor that is not yet clear is why China now seems to emphasize long-term interests with Japan. Is this merely because of President Hu, or is it due to converging interests between China and Japan, as some commentators have suggested?

It is true that both nations share similar goals of expanded trade and economic prosperity in a global market system. Both nations also, in principle, favor a stable Korean Peninsula and safe access to energy supplies.

As parallel as these interests may be, they are relatively minor when compared to the significant differences that still drive both nations apart.

Indeed, even if Beijing has not played the history card of late, history issues are far from settled. Prime Minister Koizumi's fondness for Yasukuni Shrine and the lingering textbook controversies continue to inflame Chinese public opinion and put Japan on the defensive.

In addition, China and Japan still do not see eye to eye on many of the key geopolitical issues confronting Northeast Asia. Beijing is wary of Japan's ever-growing ties with Taiwan and Japanese efforts to contribute to regional security under the U.S.-Japan alliance framework.

Tokyo, too, is concerned about China's rising economic and military power. Japanese defense officials see China's growing influence as a long-term threat to Japan and an additional reason to shore up the bilateral alliance with the United States.

Another potential difference between China and Japan that may soon come to the fore is the North Korean problem. While both nations desire stability on the Peninsula, a North Korean nuclear weapons program presents a much greater threat to Japan than to China.

Japan may, in turn, respond in ways that would deeply trouble China, such as developing more extensive missile defense systems and preemptive strike capabilities (some commentators in the United States have been advocating that Japan develop its own nuclear weapons program).

It remains to be seen, then, to what degree China's new leadership is willing to sweep historical problems and other bilateral differences under the rug in pursuit of a future-oriented relationship with Japan.

Among some of the concrete steps that Beijing could take to show such a commitment would be to reinitiate bilateral defense exchanges that were called off by China after Prime Minister Koizumi's visits to Yasukuni Shrine. Mutual port visits by naval vessels and high-level defense dialogues, dormant since last year, should be resumed.

President Hu could also show his determination to keep the Yasukuni issue from disrupting bilateral ties altogether by inviting Prime Minister Koizumi to China. Beijing is reportedly willing to meet with any other top Japanese leader, yet refusing to deal with Koizumi casts doubt on the sincerity of China's diplomatic gestures toward Japan.

The difficulty for Tokyo is to strike a balance between caution and optimism if China takes further steps to reach out. Japan's left-wing will be tempted to exaggerate converging China-Japan relations, expecting perhaps more forbearance than Beijing is willing or able to deliver. Hawks in Japan could also squander a real opportunity to move beyond history toward a more pragmatic relationship with China. At this point, though, only China's leaders know whether they are ready to play the last hand of the history card.

(This article, entitled "Hu appears willing to let bygones by bygones," originally appeared in the July 12 issue of Daily Yomiuri. Don't quote without author's permission)

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