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China, Japan hail new beginning at bilateral summit
China and Japan on Monday pledged a "new starting point" for bilateral ties. The statement was made during a three-day visit by Chinese Foreign Affairs Minister Wang Yi to Japan. During the visit, Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe called for warmer relations between the two countries and said they should work together on North Korea.
The visit came just a day before Abe travels to the US and plans for a possible visit to China before the end of the year were announced.
China-Japan relations have been going through a rough time over the last decade.
“The last 10 years have really been the worst period of tension between the two countries, since the Cold War, perhaps since World War II.” says Benjamin Charlton, senior researcher with Oxford Analytica.
It is hard for China just to ignore the Japanese economy and vice-versa.
The current Beijing-Tokyo chill dates back to 2012, when there was a tense confrontation over a small group of islands in the East China Sea, which both countries claimed sovereignty over.
“Since then, although it has left the headlines, the situation on the ground, or in the water I should say surrounding these islands, has not really improved,” says Charlton.
“There are still ships from both countries confronting each other. Japan sees it as an intrusion by Chinese ships into Japanese waters, so this really has not been resolved. And it is very difficult for either leader to really reach out to the other country."
History of hostility
China and Japan have never been great friends, however. Mutual hostility dates back to the Sino-Japanese war in 1895, the brutal invasion of China during World War II, the Nanjing massacre of over 300,000 Chinese.
But that was all 70 and more years ago. Germany has reconciled with its enemies, why is there still this antagonism between the two Asian countries?
Unlike Germany, the Japanese have never really examined the country's wartime record and Beijing keeps on reproaching them for it.
And the Chinese propaganda machine may have another reason to continue bashing Japan.
“After the end of the Cold War, the Chinese Communist Party [CCP] became paranoid about going the same way as the Soviet Union,” says Charlton.
“And they were worried about the lack of ideological power that communism had. So they realised that after [Communist China’s first leader] Mao [Zedong] people had stopped believing in communism, they lost legitimacy and they turned instead to this kind of xenophobic anti-Japanese nationalism."
Charlston thinks that the CCP needs Japan to “pin their own legitimacy on having driven the Japanese out of China, of having liberated the Chinese people from a foreign imperial power. So as long as they remain insecure in their own position in China, they can’t really relax this anti-Japanese propaganda.”
Economies tied together
Meanwhile, since China opened to the outside world in 1978 and replaced its hard-core communism with a capitalist, free market economy, Japan has become a major investor in and trade partner of China.
Economically speaking, it doesn’t make much sense for Beijing to continue fuelling these anti-Japanese sentiments, although they are shared by much of the Chinese population.
“You had some anti-Japanese demonstrations, moments of anti-Japanese hate,” says Jean-Pierre Cabestan, head China studies with Baptist University in Hong Kong.
“But it has not prevented both countries cooperating on quite a number of fronts."
The Japanese tourism industry caters for over a million Chinese visitors a year, Cabestan points out.
“What the Chinese are doing is not exactly what they are thinking or what the propaganda tells them to think of Japan, and here you've got a huge contrast."
Anti-Japanese demonstrations flare up from time to time but quickly die down, he points out.
"So there's some blatant contradiction between these anti-Japanese propaganda and the fact that both economies and both societies are pretty much interdependent and it is hard for China just to ignore the Japanese economy and vice-versa."
There are currently joint initiatives by Chinese and Japanese scholars to find some sort of common ground on the common history, especially of World War II.
But it will remain very hard for Beijing to acknowledge that Japan may be more useful as a friend and business partner than as a global rival whose past misdeeds can be exploited as a lightning rod for public anger.