The Paradox of China-Japan Relations – The Diplomat


When Japan and the People’s Republic of China (China) normalized diplomatic relations in September 1972, the Japanese people wholeheartedly welcomed it. The scene of thousands of people thronging to Ueno Zoo just to see the pandas gifted from China as a token of friendship illustrated the uplifting feeling that existed at the time. Japan’s generally positive attitude towards China lasted for nearly a decade, peaking in 1980 when 79 percent of the Japanese population had a positive image of China, according to a government-sponsored survey.

September 2022 marks the 50th anniversary of normalization. However, within half a century, Japan’s optimism about China has waned dramatically. In the fall of 2021, Genron NPO and China Net released polling data showing that more than 90 percent of Japanese people have a negative view of China, a level not seen since 2005.

Security concerns have become a significant factor contributing to long-running historical disputes and China’s ironclad stance on civil liberties, causing the Japanese public to become disillusioned with China.

When Taiwan — a self-governing island that China considers its legal territory — held its first democratic elections in 1996, China responded with a full-scale military exercise and launched missiles near Taiwan. However, due to US President Bill Clinton’s decision to counter China’s aggressive behavior by sending two aircraft carriers into the Taiwan Strait, China was forced to halt its drills.

Determined never to repeat the humiliating defeat during the so-called Third Cross-Straits Crisis, China has embarked on a massive military buildup. Defense spending increased by double digits each year through the first decade of the 21st century. In March 2022, China announced military spending would increase by 7.1 percent, the new figure is expected to be $229.47 billion.

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Especially in recent years, as China’s military preparedness has been stepped up, neighboring countries like Japan are increasingly concerned that a potential military conflict could extend beyond Taiwan. China’s recent launch of missiles into Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) as part of military drills in response to US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan has left many Japanese fearful of being drawn into a potential armed conflict, something that there is since World War II. Today, 81 percent of Japanese perceive China as a security threat, even stronger than the similar perception of North Korea, which was usually the reason for Japan to invest in its defense capabilities.

Despite recent developments casting a shadow over Sino-Japanese relations, economic ties remain robust – arguably stronger than ever. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, China’s share of Japan’s trade posted an all-time high in both total trade and import value in 2020, comparable to its record high for China’s share of Japan’s imports (25.8 percent) in 2016. Also in 2020, China overtook the US as the number one importer of Japanese goods for the first time in two years. And in the first quarter of 2022, China’s imports of Japanese goods hit a record high.

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Despite potential casualties and actual damage from supply chain disruption and the Chinese government’s tight control over private companies, the Japanese business community seems insulated from this reality. While the number of China-based Japanese companies has fallen to its lowest level in 10 years, more than 12,000 companies, mostly manufacturers, still remain. A survey conducted by Sankei Shimbun found that more than half of 118 Japanese companies responded that doing business with China should stay the same or develop further. In the same survey, not even one company responded that significant distance between China and Japan is required.

What is also fascinating is that despite politically sensitive times – during which countries have been made aware of the close ties Chinese firms have with the Chinese government and the People’s Liberation Army – the Japanese public has been inclined to embrace Chinese brands and goods, which is the opposite in the direction in which Japan’s allies tend. To take the example of TikTok, a Chinese social media platform, India has banned it outright and the United States has tried, both for security reasons. In Japan, however, a government agency recently announced it would work with TikTok to raise awareness among youth about the My Number Card, a government-issued document designed to streamline administrative processes.

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An electric bus from Chinese electric vehicle maker BYD, a potential competitor to Japan’s dynamic auto industry, went into service in Kyoto. At a Tokyo venue in May, Huawei, a multinational telecommunications company under scrutiny by the US and Canada over national security concerns, announced the launch of new devices aimed at Japanese consumers.

In recent years, major Chinese companies such as Alibaba and TCL Technology, the world’s second largest LCD TV maker, have entered the Japanese market. Overall, booming Chinese business activity in Japan is another reminder that Japan’s economic interdependence with China remains robust despite deteriorating political and diplomatic ties.

“Hot economy, cold politics,” a phrase commonly used to describe China-Japan bilateral relations in the early 2000s, can still be applied to the current state of affairs. This underlying theme has been a constant in the diplomatic history of Japan and China even before the establishment of official relations, given that there was some degree of private business exchange even at the height of the Cold War.

However, it remains to be seen whether this enduring phenomenon will survive the current intense political climate that has overshadowed the relationship’s 50th anniversary. Whether the economic aspect of the relationship can once again overcome or alleviate the political friction remains to be seen in the near future.



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