The Relationship between China and Japan


The history between any two countries is a complex issue that depends on various factors including historical, geographical, political, and demographical issues among others. Inter-country relations are often as a result of connections and disconnections that have occurred over the course of time. China and Japan are a good example of two countries with a complex relationship. The strained relationship between China and Japan dates back to 1894, during the initial conflict between these two countries. Since then, the relationship between the two countries has gone through a rollercoaster of experiences leading to an open love-hate relationship between the two countries. The relationship between China and Japan is historically torrid.

For instance, there have been several armed and unarmed conflicts between the two countries during various periods including, 1894, 1937, and 1945. One glaring detail about the sour relationship between China and Japan is the fact that Japan carried out atrocities on the Chinese population. On the other hand, some observers have pointed out that the Chinese government is the biggest perpetrator of anti-Japanese ideologies. Eventually, the nature of the Sino-Japanese tensions changed especially after the end of the Cold War. Currently, glaring economic realities have ensured a certain level of cooperation between the two countries. Nevertheless, underneath this calm lies strong competition between the two economic giants. This essay investigates the extreme relationship between China and Japan including how this love and hate dynamic has manifested itself throughout history.

Historical Background

The history of complex Sino-Japanese relations dates back to the 1st century when China was the more dominant of the two countries. During this period, China boasted of an immense geographical size, a progressive culture, and various organized systems. Consequently, during this period China was considered to be the benchmark in the entire Asian region (Emmott 43). Naturally, China and Japan were in close contact as neighbors and they shared certain aspects of interrelations such as cultural ties, economic interests, sea faring, and military engagements. History indicates that the Japanese culture is greatly influenced by ancient Chinese practices including religion, literature, philosophy, and culture (Gernet 32). The dynamics of this relationship changed when the Meiji Restoration took place in Japan. Beginning in the 1850s, Japan was able to achieve tremendous growth in terms of its military, aspirations as a colonizer, and raise its global economic portfolio. Suddenly, Japan was in a position to coerce China in terms of treaties and other military engagements.

The Meiji Restoration in Japan can be credited with instigating the first Japanese-Chinese War. The conflict was triggered by Japan’s decision to expel the Chinese who were occupying the Korean Peninsula. Japan then went ahead to occupy Taiwan and Picador Island, a region that was earlier legitimized to the Chinese. The final push came when Japan extended its invasion to China’s mainland and also forced China to accept new treaties (He 49). This conflict was watered down by events surrounding World War I, when in 1922 Japan agreed to a truce concerning the invasion of the Chinese territory.

However, by 1937 Japan had resumed its aggression tendencies towards China through its invasion of Manchuria. The succession of events involved “Japan invading China in 1937, occupying the French-Chinese India in 1940, attacking Pearl Harbor in 1941, and invading the Philippines in 1942” (King 101). At this point, it appeared that Japan’s dominance over China was sealed. However, the dropping of two atomic bombs in Nagasaki and Hiroshima reversed Japan’s fortunes abruptly. Consequently, Japan was forced to surrender its territory in Taiwan and Manchuria to China. In addition, the islands that it had acquired in the Pacific Ocean were ceded to the Americans. The year 1945 marks the end of China-Japan military conflicts.

The end of the World War II was the epitome of anti-Japanese sentiments in China. The conflict “had left feelings of bitterness in the Chinese hearts towards Japan, resulting from its military campaigns and atrocities, and these feelings still affect the Chinese-Japanese relations” (Noda and Ruijun 19). The Peoples Republic of China (PRC) was established in 1949 in the mainland, while Taiwan remained separated from this outfit. Taiwan mainly depended on the United States (US) for its defense against China until the PRC was officially recognized by the US. Since the formation of the PRC and the end of the Qing Dynasty, there have been several attempts to repair the China-Japan relations. However, this period has also been marked with moments of confrontations and tensions. It was not until 1991, when there was a formal forum for interrelationships between China and Japan (Rose 49). The historical background of the China-Japan relations indicates that the balance of power has continuously shifted between the two countries. At one time, China was the powerhouse but all this changed in the course of the Meiji Japan and the two world wars.

Japan’s Influence in China after the Qing Dynasty and the World War II

The rule of the Qing Dynasty was replaced with that of PRC in 1949. After this period, the relationship between China and Japan went from ‘hot to cold’. Hostility between the two countries was replaced by “an absence of contact to cordiality and extremely close cooperation in many fields” (Wan 19). Although Japan had lost most of its military power, China considered it a threat because of its alliance with the US. Furthermore, the Chinese people harbored a fear that Japan will be remilitarized again. On the other side of the divide, the Japanese were growing weary of China’s increasing military and economic power. The issue of an existing treaty between Russia and China was also cause for concern in Japan. The bigger picture also involved the use of Japan as a base for US military during the Korean War. China-Japan relations were further affected by the “Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan signed in 1951” (Richards 43). Japan influenced PRC further by establishing relations with China’s estranged neighbor, Taiwan. Following in the footsteps of most Western countries, Japan considered Taipei as the only legal Chinese government.

Interestingly, unofficial relations between China and Japan flourished in the early years of the PRC nation even in the midst of simmering tensions. For example, there were several exchanges involving culture, business, and labor between the two countries. China was mainly the pursuer of Japanese influence using “non-governmental organizations (NGO) primarily through the Chinese People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs (CPIFA)” (Katz 18). The CPIFA was in a position to engage Japanese politicians but the left-wing personalities had the most interest in China. Japan’s only chance of reaching any agreements with China was by utilizing informal channels. For example, in 1953 Japan’s Diet was able to ink a trade deal with the Chinese using the Chinese Commission for the Promotion of International Trade (CCPIT). Other informal agreements that were made after the Qing Dynasty include “the repatriation of Japanese prisoners of war with the Japanese Red Cross (1954) and the Fishery Agreement with the Japan-China Fishery Association (1955)” (Benedict 9). Some of these agreements turned out to be helpful to PRC because they gave the country a favorable view by Westerners, especially the US. Eventually, China was in a position to influence the US policies on Asia including recognition of Taipei.

Balance in Relationship

In 1958, the love-hate relations between China and Japan changed course again when the former suspended its business with the latter. China was of the view that this move would force the US and Japan to accept its political stand. Some of China’s political requests included a promise that Japan would not be hostile towards it and that its rival adopts a cordial attitude towards the repairing of the two countries’ relationship. Furthermore, China was suspicious that Japan was involved in a conspiracy to create two Chinese Republics.

The hate once more turned into love when the Soviet Union severed its relations with the Chinese leading China to return to its nemesis for trade deals. Following the severing of this relationship, the Soviet Union withdrew its expatriates from the PRC thereby creating a dilemma for the country. The Liao-Takasaki Agreement resulted from China’s diminishing options. The Agreement enabled China to pursue an industrialization program on condition that financing was carried out through Japan’s financial institution. Furthermore, China was now able to set up a trade liaison in Tokyo. All these kind gestures from Japan led to protests from Taiwan, which was the official Japanese trading partner prior to the Liao Agreement. Eventually, Japan bowed to pressure from Taiwan and reengaged some of its earlier commitments to China. China reacted to this turnaround by entrenching its propaganda the Japan was a US pet. Furthermore, China lessened some of its trade commitments with Japan.

Another shift in Japan-China relations came in the 1960s when Japan gained its independence from the US. This period also coincided with the unprecedented growth of the Japanese economy. During this period of Japanese revival, one major concern for China was that the country might remilitarize and assume chieftain of the Asian region. Nevertheless, Japan was facing significant domestic problems and it chose to disregard the concerns of the Chinese. In the beginning of 1970s, the Chinese and the Japanese sought to restore the neglected trade ties between the two countries. Consequently, the two nations began normalizing their relationship by establishing trade-liaison offices between the two countries.

When the US President Richard Nixon visited China in 1972, the tensions between China and Japan eased. Consequently, it became possible for China and Japan to establish diplomatic relations. The Chinese considered themselves as the winners in this engagement because most of their demands to the Japanese were accepted. In the course of 1970s, the economic relations between the two countries grew at a fast rate with Japan sending twenty-eight trade missions to PRC and the latter sending thirty. The death of Mao Zedong brought widespread changes to China including an increase in Japanese investments. By 1985, the capitalization of trade between China and Japan stood at $20 billion (Katz 19). Most of this trade involved industrial equipments, construction materials, technology, and crude oil. Relations between the two countries were tested once again as a result of the dispute involving the Taiwanese Senkaku Islands.

Current Relations between China and Japan

Nowadays, China’s main concern is that “Japan is trying to play a more important political role in international issues” (Benedict 99). The love-hate relationship between the two countries makes China anxious about the possibility of Japan having the ability to influence international policies directly. The fact that Japan rarely exhibits its military strength makes its power uncertain. However, the general consensus is that Japan’s military power is stronger than it appears. China does not buy into the concept that Japan is a peaceful and non-aggressive country. Japan has been trying to acquire permanent membership in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) thereby acquiring veto power. China has openly refused to support Japan in its quest further highlighting the strained relationship between the two countries.

Beijing’s main concern is that having such a status will give Japan undue influence in global politics (He 50). Another withstanding issue in China-Japan relations is Japan’s revisionist stance towards the history of the two countries. China points out that Japan’s take on Asian history is skewed and the Japanese continue to deny their atrocities towards the Chinese. China is of the view that Japan should take Germany’s cue by recognizing and apologizing for its transgressions during the war. The fact that Japan continues to deny its atrocities towards the Chinese remains to be a thorn in China’s flesh. For instance, Japan’s leaders have always behaved in a reconciliatory manner towards the Chinese but their actions back home indicate that Japan is not sorry. The Japanese Emperor’s recent apology to Korea is considered as an indirect insult by the Chinese.

The Sino-Japanese relations brought several influences to China in the long run. For instance, “bilateral cooperation in services has developed particularly since 2003, partly due to the increased Japanese tourism to China” (King 65). When Japan opened up to China, the rest of the world followed and this has led to China being more receptive to foreign investment. The last ten years have witnessed an influx of Chinese tourists to Japan, most of who are interested in shopping for Japanese electronics. Manufacture of some Japanese products such as electronics and cars has come to depend on China’s cheap labor. In the course of these interactions, a great deal of technology has migrated to China. Other cultural influences such as Japanese filmmaking and cartoons have become part of Chinese culture. For instance, Chinese films, animations, and cartoons have become an independent aspect of the local culture. However, these products are consumed all over the world.

Future Prospects and Conclusion

The history of the China-Japan relationship indicates that it is difficult to predict what will happen in future. For close to a century, tensions between the two countries have remained unpredictable. Future stability in the region solely depends on the actions of the leaders who have the influence reactions to any tensions. Observers have cited Japan’s disregard of popular opinion as a great motivator of stability in the region. If the Chinese government adopts a similar attitude, the love-hate relationship between the two countries would die out on its own. As millions of Chinese continue to visit Japan, the propaganda effect loses its power. In future, the absence of propaganda might lead to better China-Japan relations. Impending issues in the unity efforts include the South China Sea aspect where Japan is torn between siding with its old Western allies and creating better relations with Asia. The outcome of this disagreement will determine how the future relations between China and Japan turn out.

Works Cited

Benedict, Ruth. The Chrysanthemum and the sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2007.

Emmott, Bill. Rivals: How the Power Struggle between China, India and Japan will Shape our Next Decade. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009.

Gernet, Jacques. A History of Chinese Civilization. Cambridge University Press, 1996.

He, Yinan. “Remembering and forgetting the war: elite mythmaking, mass reaction, and Sino-Japanese relations, 1950–2006.” History & Memory, vol. 19, no. 2, 2007, pp. 43-74.

Katz, Richard. “Mutual assured production: why trade will limit conflict between China and Japan.” Foreign Affairs, vol. 92, no.1, 2013, pp. 18-19.

King, Amy. China-Japan Relations after World War Two: Empire, Industry and War, 1949–1971. Cambridge University Press, 2016.

Noda, Takeshi, and Bai Ruijun. “Returning to the Original Point of Normalization of China-Japan Relations and Renewing Peaceful and Friendly Relations between Governments.” International Understanding, vol. 2, no. 1, 2014, pp. 19-21.

Richards, Katherine. “The Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands: A challenge for regional security?.” Australian Defence Force Journal, vol. 194, no. 2, 2014, pp. 43-44.

Rose, Caroline. Interpreting History in Sino-Japanese Relations: A Case-Study in Political Decision Making. Routledge, 2005.

Wan, Ming. Sino-Japanese Relations: Interaction, Logic, and Transformation. Stanford University Press, 2006.