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History, memory and the ‘New Era’ of Sino-Japanese friendship

Image credit: Kevin Dooley (Creative Commons: Flickr)

Anniversaries have a peculiar power to serve both as a platform for facilitating diplomatic reconciliation and fuelling nationalistic confrontation. October 2018 marked the 40th anniversary of the signing of the China-Japan Treaty of Peace and Friendship and leaders in both countries saw this as an opportunity to push for a breakthrough in the frosty impasse that has characterised the bilateral relationship in recent years.

Indeed, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Beijing for the occasion almost speaks for itself, particularly since it followed Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s official trip to Japan in May. These reciprocated high-level visits were heralded by many observers as a turning point towards warmer relations between the two neighbours, marking a positive ‘thaw’ in Sino-Japanese relations.

“From competition to coexistence, Japanese and Chinese bilateral relations have entered a new phase,” Abe told reporters in Beijing after meeting with China’s top two leaders. “With President Xi Jinping, I would like to carve out a new era for China and Japan.”

However, not all anniversaries are helpful for propagating bilateral closeness and this ‘new era’ of Sino-Japanese friendship remains caught-up in numerous enduring disagreements. The Diaoyu/ Senkaku Island claims dispute remains unresolved, along with historical memories of Japanese colonial aggression, most recently making headlines due to the arrest of a Hong Kong activist who set a small fire at the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, in an apparent protest against Japanese militarism and in commemoration of the victims of the Nanjing massacre.

Highlighting the particular importance of the Nanjing massacre anniversary, in 2014, the 13th of December was designated as a day of national mourning to remember the victims. While President Xi did not visit Nanjing for the annual commemorative ceremony last year, the nationalist demonstration at the Yasukuni Shrine and its widely-reported profile demonstrate the persistence of these issues in East Asian politics.

Of course, the trend isn’t limited to Sino-Japanese relations. The latest diplomatic row between South Korea and Japan over forced labour compensation, along with the ongoing comfort women issue that continues to make headlines, act as vivid illustrations of the regional relevance of these themes.

Memory and history, it would seem, remain very much alive today.

But what does this mean for the recent ‘thaw’ among two of East Asia’s biggest players? Notwithstanding this persistence of historical grievances, it would be wrong to dismiss Sino-Japanese rapprochement outright. Indeed, October’s summit demonstrated that there is room for manoeuvring towards a ‘normal’ chapter in Sino-Japanese relations, particularly in coordinating regional infrastructure investment and economic cooperation.

Steps towards greater mutual accommodation have been of particular importance, as shifts wrought to the geopolitical climate of the region by the US Trump presidency have been acutely felt by both China and Japan.

In this context, it is worthwhile to recall that whilst Abe’s visit to Beijing officially marked the 40th anniversary of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship, it was also one that saw the conclusion of numerous trade deals, including a significant currency-swap deal, which may serve to bolster Sino-Japanese cooperation on regional infrastructure, moving away from outright competition between Japan-lead and China-lead investment in the region.

However, the allowance for Sino-Japanese cooperation remains fragile. Recent developments surrounding Huawei CFO’s arrest in Canada, which was followed by Japan effectively banning Huawei and ZTE from public procurement, along with China’s latest round of espionage allegations, have made it clear that history is not the only obstacle standing in the way of closer bilateral ties.

As we await the results of the upcoming China-Japan trade talks, expected to take place in Beijing this spring, it will be interesting to observe how policy-makers on both sides strive to make room for exploring avenues of Sino-Japanese cooperation in an era of intensifying Sino-US tensions. As these latest rounds of rapprochement clearly demonstrated, the promise of the ‘new era’ of Sino-Japanese relations continues to hinge on the acceptance of certain differences, leveraging cooperation potential to navigate sensitive areas of national defence and historical memory.

Kate Kalinova is the East Asia Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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