Poison in the Sino-Japanese relationship

By Richard McGregor

Financial Times

Published: April 16 2005

About two years ago on a visit to Nanjing, scene of the slaughter of 300,000 Chinese by Japan's Imperial Army in 1938, my ears pricked up when the deputy mayor told me he had just dispatched the city's first mission to Japan to solicit investment. The deputy mayor merely shrugged his shoulders at my query at the move.

As an official judged on the performance of the local economy, the mission was a practical response to his city's drive to keep pace with other centres in the thriving Yangtze delta region around Shanghai. Such pragmatism on economic issues has turned China into Japan's largest trading partner, an epochal development that has increasingly lulled observers into a false sense of security about the ability of Asia's two giant powers to get on.

The wave of violent, anti-Japanese protests across Chinese cities in recent days has dispelled such rosy assumptions. They are a reminder that, while China and Japan have a boisterous trading relationship, it rests on a political foundation that is weak and dangerously poisonous. Some media reports have claimed Beijing engineered them. But such is the popular anti-Japanese sentiment in China that it would be more accurate to say the government channelled them into the service of its larger foreign policy objectives. In the short term, China would like to derail Japan's effort to join the United Nations Security Council. In the long term, the countries will jostle to be the political and military power in north Asia.

The mere fact that China and Japan are strategic rivals should not preclude a healthy dialogue. The US and China, too, are competitors, but there is a depth to their bilateral dialogue that has given the relationship a new ballast in recent years. China and Japan, with just as much to talk about, have no such dimensions to their relationship. China has ruled out a bilateral summit as long as Junichiro Koizumi, Japan's prime minister, continues his regular visits to the Yasukuni Shrine for the war dead, including some class-A war criminals. Such public demands, of course, leave Mr Koizumi little choice for the moment but to continue his visits.

The last time Mr Koizumi and Hu Jintao, China's president, met was on the sidelines of the annual Asia-Pacific summit in Chile, an encounter that left little room for a genuine exchange. Locked in political systems that enforce consensus, neither leader can rise above the fray and make gestures to break the present deadlock. The tension at the top has permeated through ministerial and academic ranks, making even conference-level visits to Japan difficult for Chinese scholars and retired officials.

Nearly 60 years after the conflict, China still demands that Japan "apologise" for its wartime atrocities. The last time I raised this with a Japanese diplomat in China, he threw up his hands in despair and said: "But we have apologised 21 times!" The count is probably even higher today. The problem with formal Japanese apologies, though, is the manner of their presentation. The wording is inevitably debated in public beforehand and by the time they are delivered they tend to anger both the ultra-nationalists in Japan, who object to apologies in principle, and recipients, such as China and Korea, that they were meant to mollify.

Chinese leaders, however, have never been ready to accept apologies. Japan-bashing has long been a favoured sport for the Communist party, as it handily bolsters its patriotic credentials forged in the anti-Japanese war. As a result, the state-controlled press in China prefers to write about Japan's atrocities rather than genuine changes in post-war-Japan, its pacifism and substantial aid to its neighbour - tacitly understood on both sides as a form of war reparations. In party lore, history is at the service of politics. Thus, Chinese school textbooks play down the mayhem of Mao Zedong's rule and play up the Japanese invasion. The most astounding phenomenon in China these days is the virulent anti-Japanese feeling among young people, born decades after the conflict. It is common to hear young Chinese spontaneously say: "I hate the Japanese", a statement that would produce a politically correct wince in western countries.

In Japan, Mr Koizumi clearly feels he wins domestic political points by "standing up" to China. Mr Hu, however, is in a much more delicate position. He and other Chinese leaders may have calculated that the recent demonstrations buttress their political campaign against Japan, but they also know how such protests can change direction and turn on the government itself. The security services have already began marshalling their formidable resources. Yesterday, in Shanghai, citizens began receiving police messages on their mobile phones warning that any demonstration should be peaceful. Shanghai, despite its freewheeling reputation, has a pristine image as a showcase for modernisation and foreign investment. Violent demonstrations threaten to undermine that image. The real fear, if riots continue in Chinese cities, is that foreign investors who have profited from stability in China may look elsewhere to invest.

The climax for the present campaign is planned for May 4, when student organisers in Beijing are planning their biggest demonstration, to mark the anniversary of the day student demonstrators demonstrated in 1919 to protest against the Japanese takeover of German colonies. China's current leaders will have forgotten this episode at their peril.

The writer is the FT's Beijing bureau chief