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THE SINO-JAPAN PARADOX 

By Imtiaz Rafi Butt

February 24, 2023 10:21 PM


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Since ancient times, the people of China and Japan have influenced each other. Separated by a narrow stretch of waters in the East China Sea, both nations have relied on each other and made up an important bilateral relationship in the region. Historians believe that people of both these nations share a common ancestry. Although the Chinese region near the Yangtse river is believed to be the oldest civilization, it is believed that the people of Japan have been influenced and evolved in parallel with the Chinese through centuries. Both nations have learned from each other’s inventions and have engaged in trade and commerce through the seas. But relations have not always been cordial. Both these nations have fought multiple wars and then revived their relations realizing their commonalities. As of 2023, that journey is still underway, and like ancient times, these nations are once again a paramount part of the world in terms of economy, politics and regional stability. As the security debate and the struggle for world dominance heats up, both these nations are caught in a paradox of sorts.  

Although Japan and China have been closely linked through centuries, their lowest point came in 1937 when the Imperial army of Japan invaded China. Armed with a massive war-machine, the Japanese army inflicted heavy losses on the people of China. Even Beijing was captured and the massacre at Nanjing became a horror story that was accepted by the later Government of Japan as a crime against humanity. The war became a large part of the conflicts that are counted in the Second World War. After Pearl Harbor, the war intensified, Japan lost and then with the defeat of the imperial army, the regions of China were returned as the Japanese army surrendered. For decades, the wounds of the war would haunt the relations between China and Japan. Even after 1949, when the People’s Republic of China came into being. There was almost complete silence between the two nations but in 1972, the first move was made. The leadership of Japan began negotiations and normalization of relations with the acceptance of the massacres inflicted upon China by Japan in the war between 1937 and 1945. The people of China were forthcoming and relations started on a high note.  

There was steady growth in relations. In the 1980s and the 1990s, the people of China and Japan came closer. Surveys indicated that both nations viewed each other as pioneers, and inventors and saw mutual benefits in relations. But then another diplomatic row in the form of Taiwan arose. Japan sided with Taiwan and with the Western world in its view against China and diplomatic relations were halted once again. China responded by holding military exercises near Japanese waters and the matter was duly responded by the Clinton administration by sending two aircraft carriers on the pacific coast. That incident alone sparked the boost in the Chinese defence budget that continues even today. Later on, President Xi Jinping and Shinzo Abe laid the foundation of the greatest program to link China and Japan onto a diplomatic path that was never imagined before. As a result of trade agreements and bilateral cultural exchange, Japan and China became the two nations with the highest trade volume between the two countries in the world. A feat that no two other nations have ever achieved.  

As of 2023, Japan and China are the third and the second most prosperous countries in terms of Nominal GDP. Despite differences, thousands of Japanese firms have placed their manufacturing facilities in China and Chinese companies are penetrating the Japanese markets. Both countries are economically linked and their trade volumes are surpassing their previous performance every year. Countries like India and Australia are banning Chinese companies like Alibaba, TikTok and China Merchants but Japan has given full preference to Chinese firms which are popular and trusted in Tokyo. The trade volumes continue to grow and the cultural exchange between the two nations is also on the rise despite several points of contention. Another critical factor is the launch of the One Belt and Road Initiative where Japan has decided to join the Chinese trade network in contrast with its political view of the Chinese Government. Japan is today, more connected with Chinese cities than it is with Western countries of Europe. The United States and Australia have distanced themselves from the OBOR initiative but Japan has openly joined and Japanese firms are continuously investing and making it a point to reap the benefits of Chinese expansion in trade and commerce. But there are still irritants that plague the relationship which are being fanned.  

The Senkaku islands in the East China Sea are claimed by both Japan and China and the Western countries are exploiting this conflict into a diplomatic deadlock. Japan is a member of NATO and does not hold considerable military strength after the Second World War. The inclusion of Japan in NATO and its claim on the Senkaku islands remains a paradox in its bilateral and commercial relationship with China. Further, the Chinese stance on the Senkaku islands leads Japan to lend support to Taiwan against Beijing.  

During the time of the Trump era, the United States engaged in an active trade war with China and Japan also joined in. Tariffs and trade barriers were put in place against Chinese exports and China responded with tariffs and non-tariff trade barriers of its own. Also, in the initiative to contain China, the United States put in place the four-country alliance including India, Australia, and Japan to contain China. But this alliance has been unable to contain the Chinese OBOR initiative. China is set to achieve massive trade growth through its road and maritime connectivity. Gwadar will form the first phase of this connectivity. Traditionally, China has relied on the maritime route for its power and energy supplies which will now be shifted towards the Gwadar link leading directly into China through a detailed network of railways and roads. Pakistan has completed the initial phase of the CPEC program and China will soon be connected with the Middle East and Central Asia. Japanese firms working inside China will seek to benefit from this trade route, despite their Government joining an anti-China alliance. This is a direct paradox for the people of Japan and the people of China.  

Japan will be forced to join the sides. On one hand, it has historical bilateral relations and a trade volume worth billion, and on the other hand, it is pulled towards the far end by its membership in NATO, its reliance and dependence on the United States and its role in the Big Four to counter China. The people of Japan have much to gain from the outlook of China. But then there is the issue of the Senkaku Islands, support of Taiwan and military presence in the region. There are opportunities and pitfalls of equal magnitude and it is possible that Japan will be caught in the middle. The year 2022 marked the 50th anniversary of the resumption of relations in 1972 when both nations vowed to continue cooperation and never repeat the mistakes of the past. The year 2023 has brought new challenges. As the war of words over the Balloon incident and tensions rise between the United States and China, Japan will have to tread carefully as both nations are in close proximity to each other, in terms of distance as well as mutual dependence.  


Imtiaz Rafi Butt


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