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A Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – a New Phase of China-Japan Relations

Sino-Japanese relations, embittered by the legacy of the Second World War and territorial disputes, have ebbed and flowed since 1945. Sino-Japan relations are now at an interesting paradox. At the official level relations have thawed considerably. But at the level of state-aligned and state controlled media there exists a strong anti-Japanese sentiment. This enigmatic relationship is being driven by Chinese domestic politics where the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) seeks to uphold its political legitimacy.

Since the start of 2015 Sino-Japanese relations at the government level have improved. Xi Jinping and Shinzo Abe have met twice in the last six months reflecting a truce period. There have also been a number of other recent engagements between the Chinese and Japanese governments. These have included security and defence meetings held in mid March 2015, the resumption of three-way talks between China, Japan and South Korea in late March 2015 and in April the Sino-Japanese bilateral parliamentary exchanges recommenced after a hiatus of three years.

The thaw in relations was best exemplified at the Sino-Japanese Friendship Meeting on 23 May held in Beijing. During this meeting Xi Jinping welcomed a delegation of 3000 Japanese business leaders where he told them “China has always been committed to the development of China-Japan relations as its policy principal and will continue to do so in the future."

Despite some inflammatory actions by Abe’s government, this has not seemed to have adversely impacted relations at the government level. For instance, on 16 July Japan’s lower house passed two bills changing Japan’s security laws. The laws will allow Japan’s troops to fight overseas for the first time since WWII. On 21 July, Japan released its annual Defence White Paper which stressed the threat posed by China and expressed concern about China’s increasingly assertive behaviour in the East and South China Seas. The Chinese Foreign Ministry’s response to the passing of the new national security bills was low-key. A foreign ministry spokeswoman repeated past statements and encouraged Japan to “draw hard lessons from history, stick to the path of peaceful development, [and] respect the major security concerns of its Asian neighbours."

Abe’s recent speech on the anniversary of Japan’s surrender in the Second World War (which was widely commented upon as not going far enough in recognising Japan’s role), received a muted response. Spokeswoman Hua Chunying used oft-repeated phrases and urged Japan to “face squarely its history” and “stick to the path of peaceful development."

Even the more controversial visit of three of Abe’s cabinet ministers to the Yakasuni Shrine received a mild reaction from the Chinese side, with a Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman expressing China's “strong dissatisfaction and resolute opposition” but neither condemning the Japanese side nor calling for retaliation.

On the other hand, in recent months China’s state-aligned and state controlled media has run a concentrated anti-Abe campaign. For example, following the release of Japan’s Defence White Paper a headline in the Chinese language Global Times accused Japan of “increasing tensions in the Sino-Japanese relationship.”

Abe’s speech was also widely criticised in state media. The wide consensus was that his speech lacked sincerity and was evidence that Japan was not fully repentant for its actions during the war. Users on Weibo, China’s main micro-blogging site, were equally dismissive of Abe and Japan and accused Japan of planning to return to its militaristic past

@乘着微风去旅行: Abe is not apologising, nor is he asking for apologising for an offence. Instead he is inciting nationalist sentiment in the Japanese people, paving the way for the restoration of militarism.

@原来还有回忆:Abe’s words are shameless, let us strive to become strong!

So what could be driving this split personality approach to Sino-Japanese relations?

There has been an increasing economic rapprochement between China and Japan since 2012. As Martin Schulz says in Foreign Policy “economic relations have improved significantly … with a lot of negotiations behind the scenes.” There has been increased Chinese investment in the property market in Tokyo and an increasing number of Chinese tourists are visiting Japan. China, on the other hand, is keen to take advantage of Japanese technology and innovation for its own economic development (which has slowed considerably this year).

At the same time, the CCP has a political necessity to create an external adversary for the Chinese people to focus on, directing their attention away from domestic troubles (such as the current economic situation). This domestic need can explain the anti-Japanese sentiment which exists in Chinese society.

Given China’s recent economic slowdown, it is likely the CCP will continue to follow this two pronged policy approach to Japan. On one hand, encouraging anti-Japanese sentiment among the Chinese people to distract attention from domestic concerns, while on the other hand, seeking closer economic ties at the government level. In current East Asian affairs it appears ‘hot economics, cold politics’ is the new status quo.

Marie-Alice McLean-Dreyfus is the East Asia Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.

This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence. Please email with any questions or for more information.

Image credit: OiMax (Flickr: Creative Commons)

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