China-Japan ties — a complex web

How long can China and Japan keep their growing economic relationship separate from their strategic interests?

Nirupama Subramanian

JAPAN IS the second largest investor in China after Taiwan, and its third largest trading partner after the European Union and the United States. Trade between the two countries has only been rising. Chinese imports from Japan are more than from any other country. But if there is an exception to the general wisdom that a healthy economic partnership leads to good relations between countries, China and Japan exemplify it.

Several weeks after protests in China against Japanese history textbooks for their portrayal of Japan's role in the Second World War, the anger in China is still palpable.

The textbooks row was by far the most serious expression of the anti-Japanese sentiment in China in recent times. In the corridors of the imposing Ministry of Foreign Affairs building in Beijing, Japanese Prime Minister Junchihiro Koizumi's expression of remorse following the protests — the closest Japan has come to apologising for the atrocities perpetrated by its army in China during the war — has had little effect.

"Koizumi can say sorry a thousand times. But he still visits the Yakasuni shrine," said Chin Gang, Foreign Affairs spokesman, during an interaction with a group of South Asian journalists visiting China on an invitation from the Chinese Government.

The remains of Japan's war dead, including those of 14 war criminals, are interred at the shrine. Beijing has not bought Mr. Koizumi's argument that he visits the shrine not as the head of the Japanese government but as a private citizen.

Another official in the Chinese Foreign Ministry said suspicion about, and animosity towards, Japan in China was prevalent even among ordinary people, especially those living in the north-east, whose families had suffered under Japanese occupation. The Nanjing massacre of 1937 in which nearly 300,000 Chinese died at the hands of the invading Japanese army is very much a live issue in China.

The suspicions have been further fuelled with Japan issuing a statement with the U.S., describing Taiwan as a mutual security concern.

Bad news for India

For India, the face-off between the two Asian giants is bad news. China's backing is crucial to India's bid for entry into an expanded United Nations Security Council. But by locking in its aspirations with that of Japan through the G-4 initiative (in which the other countries are Germany and Brazil) New Delhi has ensured that despite the ramping up in the bilateral relationship, China will not play the tune it wants to hear on this issue. China's determination to prevent Japan from gaining permanent membership of the Council is far greater than its desire to support India's candidature. While the G-4 have decided to put off moving their resolution for an expanded UNSC as planned next month, Beijing has made it quite clear it is prepared to use its veto power to block the resolution if it is put to vote and reaches the final stage of approval by the Permanent Five.

India may claim Beijing privately supports its candidature but officially, the farthest China will go is to reiterate its oft-repeated line: India is a great nation, one among the fastest developing countries of the world, and China understands its aspirations to play a greater role in international affairs. As for membership in the Security Council, the debate on the expansion has caused too much division in the international community already, and must be finalised only after consultations and consensus among all nations.

"So far as China is concerned, we have not given a "yes" or "no" to any country's candidature," Mr. Chin said. In a position paper on U.N. reforms published last week, China floated the idea that UNSC reforms must first be approved by all countries of a region directly affected by them.

In other words, Japan's candidature must be endorsed first by all other Asian countries. Such endorsement seems highly unlikely; aside from China, South Korea too lives with the scars of the atrocities inflicted on its people by the Japanese army during the war.

"Only a country serious about its history can play a big role in the world and win the confidence of other countries," Mr. Chin said. Pointing to the peace among countries in Europe, the spokesman said it had become possible only because there was "genuine reflection" about the horrors of war in those countries. "The picture we see in Asia is quite different," he said.

Considering that the spat reflects as much the struggle between China and Japan for regional dominance in the present and future as it is about history, the real surprise is how the two countries keep their economic relationship growing at a steady pace through the war of words.

Trade with Japan accounted for 14.5 per cent of China's total trade in 2004, and both Chinese imports from and exports to Japan rose significantly from 2003.

Officials in the Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry explain this as a realisation among the governments in both countries that good economic relations are mutually beneficial and must not be harmed, and their ability to keep this separate from their strategic interests. The question is: for how long can both countries continue to do this?

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