La Chine et le Japon

Dans le cadre de mes études j’ai eu l’occasion de revenir sur une de mes petites obsessions personnelles. L’article qui va suivre est en anglais, je m’en excuse tout d’abord auprès des non-anglophones, ensuite auprès des anglophones pour le style quelque peu maladroit. Je n’ai pas le temps de m’occuper d’une éventuelle traduction. Il est assez insatisfaisant mais  j’espère avoir l’occasion dans les prochains jours d’en rediscuter.

The relationship between Japan and China is one of the most important bilateral relations in East Asia. In importance, it probably can only be compared with the relations between these two countries and the United States.

Japan is the most advanced and richest nation in Asia. China is the most populous and the most influent with a seat on the UNSC. Both are key players in the global economic system. They are closely bound together by a complex web of economic ties. The importance of the two countries explains that much of the future of the region depends on the relations between them.

If China and Japan can cooperate and set aside the past, it is likely that the rest of the region will follow with the exception of a few trouble makers like North Korea. And the entire region will be better equipped to deal with the challenges of the future. Conversely, if they agree, the whole region will suffer, torn apart between two rivals.

Today, the future of this relationship remains fraught with uncertainties. China’s meteoritic rise on the global scene in the last 30 years has contributed to a growing sense of insecurity among Japanese leaders and their people. At the same time, the spectacular anti-Japanese demonstrations in China in 2005 shows that there is a strong distrust of Japan in China.

Why? To understand the relations between China and Japan, we need to understand the past.

A brief history of Sino-Japanese relations

Relations between the two countries are old. Exchanges between the Japanese Archipelago and mainland Asia are several thousand years old and official relations between the Chinese State and the first known Japanese state can be traced as far back as the VIIth century AD. The young Japanese state copied the Chinese institutions, imported its writing system and its ideas such as Buddhism. In those times, the Japanese political elite spoke and Japan sent embassies to China.

So Japan, much like Korea or Vietnam, was heavily influenced by Chinese Culture. However, it never was under direct control of any Chinese State and its precise standing in the Chinese tributary system is the subject of historical controversies.

Relations were not always peaceful; in fact the first known battle between Chinese and Japanese armed forces, the battle of Baekgang or Hakusukinoe, is as old as the relationship itself. The subject of the dispute was a familiar one: Korean politics. From the XIIIth century to the XVIth century, Wokou, Japanese pirates made themselves famous by ravaging the Chinese coasts.

Japan and China may be old neighbors but their relations never reached the importance they have today. The current situation, where the two countries consider themselves as equal, is a heritage of the XIXth century.

While China failed to adapt to the changing context with the industrial revolution and the rise of the western colonial powers, Japan took the path of accelerated development with a program famously summarized in four words: “rich nation, strong army”.

Japanese ambitions and China’s weakness set the two countries on a colliding course. Korea, an old Chinese protectorate became the subject of the first modern conflict between them. Korea had long been a crossroads between the Chinese world, the Japanese Islands and Siberia. In a way, it was only natural that it would be the first subject of conflict between the two neighbors.

Chinese defeat and the following treaty of Shimonoseki in 1895, by which Japan acquired Taiwan, symbolized the new power balance. Japan was the new regional leader, the model to follow. In 1900, the Japanese participation to the international coalition that suppressed the Boxer uprising, symbolized Japan’s integration in the western world. At the same time, many Chinese students studied in Japanese universities. Sun Yat-sen founded his party, the Tongmenghui, in Tokyo in 1905.

Still, despite these more peaceful exchanges, relations in the early XXthe century were disastrous. In 1931, the Japanese invasion began with the creation of a puppet-State, the Mandchoukouo. In 1937, Japan launched a complete invasion of China. These events made a lasting impact on the relationship between the two countries. After 1949, Japan followed Washington’s policy of non-recognition of Beijing’s authorities.

With Japan defeated and under American surveillance and China at last reunited and at peace, the cold war was the beginning of a new era of equal relations between the two sides.

Informal contacts began between the two governments in the 1950s but due to the constraints of the Cold War, they had to remain discreet. The result was an unofficial bilateral trade agreement signed in 1962.

However, not much progress could be made until the US changed their policy toward the People’s Republic of China, which in turn would have allowed Japan to follow a more conciliatory policy toward Beijing.

The change came in the early 1970s. In 1972, President Nixon visited China and diplomatic relations were finally established in 1979. The new US policy allowed China and Japan to follow a different course, liberated from the constraints of anti-communism.

In September 1972, Japanese prime minister, Kakuei Tanaka, visited Beijing and was received by Mao Zedong. Relations were normalized. Then, in 1978, a peace treaty was finally signed. A wave of Japanese investments and loans followed.

But even in the early 1980s, history was a controversial subject and the apparent difficulties of the Japanese to face their war-time past were a source of anger for the PRC government. China was very interested in Japanese economic aid and investment but at the same time it remained suspicious of Japan and its perceived arms build-up.


The economic relations are as important as ever, in 2006, Japan was the third most important destination for Chinese exports and the first source of imports. For Japan, it was the third destination for exports and the first source of imports. Japan is also the first source of foreign direct investments for China. And China’s robust growth in the 1990s and 00s is often thought to be behind the Japanese economic rebound in the early 00s.

Despite this, there are still today a number of problems. The most obvious is the number of historical controversies. Japanese Prime Minister Jun’ichirō Koizumi liked to visit the Yasukuni Shrine where the spirits of Japanese soldiers, among whom war-criminals, are honored.  There are also controversies over text-books. These events have raised doubt over the sincerity of Japan’s apology.

There is also a territorial dispute over the delimitations of the two countries respective EEZ. The center of this problem is the Diaoyutai or Senkaku Islands.  They are uninhabited and are formally under the control of the Japanese government. The Chinese government claims that the islands are Chinese. The islands in themselves are useless but there is natural gas in the area.

Another problem is Taiwan. Japan enjoys good relations with Taiwan. The Chinese government is very susceptible to anything that might appear as a challenge to the “one-china” principle. The issue is aggravated by the US-Japan alliance, since 1979 and the Taiwan relations Act, the United States protects Taiwan.  In 2005, the US and Japan made a joint communiqué encouraging “the peaceful resolution of issues concerning the Taiwan Strait through dialogue.” It was interpreted by Beijing as interference in China’s internal affairs. The perimeter of the US-Japan alliance is the important issue in this context. In 1996, Japan and US adopted “new guidelines” that detail cooperation regarding the defense of Japan and “situations in areas surrounding Japan”.   Whether or not this sentence includes Taiwan is a source of uncertainty in the region.

These three problems should be understood in the larger context of the changing balance of power in East Asia. China is on the rise while Japan is weakened by an economic depression and a demographic decline.  It is not a very promising context for peaceful relations. Yet the two countries are more interdependent than ever.  Will the future be dominated by cooperation in a “win-win” game or by competition in a “zero-sum” game?

Recently, the DPJ was elected; the new government promised a more Asian centric policy and intends to avoid any sign of historical revisionism. If this trend goes on, and if China is open to it, a more peaceful era might open for the East Asian region.


3 commentaires sur « La Chine et le Japon »

  1. Oui, à ceci près que ce mouvement n’est pas conçu contre l’alliance avec les États-Unis. Le Japon doit faire un jeu d’équilibre entre son désire de réintégrer pleinement le concert des nations asiatiques et en même temps garder une assurance vie sous la forme d’un alliance avec les USA.

    Comme beaucoup de pays, le Japon a besoin des américains mais voudrait qu’ils soient moins encombrant.

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