8 Sept 2017


Why China Can’t Stop Hating Japan

Their toxic wars over history have become caught up in both countries’ domestic politics

By Richard McGregor. 



Put yourself in the shoes of a Chinese strategist, pondering ways to check and undermine the dominant role that the U.S. has maintained in East Asia since the end of World War II.


Beijing has already built a navy to challenge the U.S. on the oceans and established military bases on artificial islands in the South China Sea. As President Donald Trump causes alarm among U.S. allies world-wide, China is also trying to peel Asian neighbors like the Philippines away from the U.S. and bring them into a new Sinocentric club.


But Beijing has never really tried the one move that could, at a stroke, devastate American interests in the region and, by extension, the world: disentangling Japan from its longtime security alliance with the U.S. If China could reassure Japan about its security, Washington’s standing as Asia’s superpower would be gravely diminished.


Why, then, has China so consistently radiated hostility toward Japan instead of trying to seduce it?


The conventional explanation is that Beijing doesn’t dare reach out to Tokyo because the Chinese remain collectively furious over Japan’s aggression and atrocities during World War II and the country’s subsequent refusal to apologize for them. But this view doesn’t hold up.


For decades after 1945, China didn’t seek an official apology. Beijing changed its tune only when it became more powerful from the 1980s onward and found a source of strategic leverage in reminding Japan of its past crimes. More to the point, since Beijing started demanding apologies for Tokyo’s wartime behavior, Japan has repeatedly given them—but to little effect.


The real obstacle to a reconciliation between China and Japan lies in the way that their toxic wars over history have become caught up in both countries’ domestic politics, exacerbating their natural rivalry as Asia’s two great powers.


In the early 1990s, with China’s Communist Party seeking to rebuild its credentials after the bloody 1989 crackdown on antigovernment demonstrators across the country, Beijing sanctioned a relentless diet of anti-Japanese propaganda. A besieged party eager to rally the masses saw no better vehicle than reviving attacks on the “historical criminal,” Japan.


Over time, policy toward Japan has become so sensitive that any Chinese official who advocates reconciliation risks career suicide. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who is also Beijing’s pre-eminent Japan expert, speaks Japanese well—but he avoids doing so in public, lest he draw personal attacks.


Chinese diplomats and scholars know the dangers of advocating rapprochement with Tokyo. “If you [say] any nice words about Japan, then you will get an angry reaction from students,” said Chu Shulong of Tsinghua University. Studying America is less fraught, he adds: “People might not agree with me, but they never call you a traitor.”


Of course, sensitivities in Sino-Japanese relations run both ways. Japanese conservatives, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, have espoused revisionist views on World War II that were bound to offend China and South Korea. (Some conservatives say that the wartime government was unfairly blamed for forcing “comfort women” into sexual servitude; others deny that the 1937 Nanjing massacre ever happened.) Japanese apologies for the war have invariably been undercut by defiant politicians saying the country had nothing to apologize for.


China experts in Japan face pressure too. Diplomats in Japan’s “China School” held sway over Tokyo’s policy until the mid-1990s; when relations went south, they were labeled “panda huggers” and sidelined. Thus the world’s second- and third-largest economies have lost the ability to talk to one another and build a stable relationship.


Leaders in Beijing still use the idea of Japan as China’s enemy to rouse the citizenry. The Japanese, seeing themselves depicted as China’s foe, have increasingly begun to act like one.


Until Asia’s great powers can get along, Japan will want to keep U.S. troops in the region. Japan cannot handle China on its own, and North Korea’s nuclear arsenal only adds to Tokyo’s jitters. A U.S. drawdown would propel a nervous Japan to go nuclear itself. Only then might China wake up to the cost of its enduring hostility to Japan.


—Mr. McGregor is the author of “Asia’s Reckoning: China, Japan, and the Fate of U.S. Power in the Pacific Century,” just out from Viking.


Appeared in the September 9, 2017, print edition as 'China’s Self-Defeating Feud With Japan.'