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The East Asian dispute the world isn’t talking about

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While much attention has rightly been placed on North Korea and its test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile, which came on Independence Day of all days, another potential conflict between major Asian powers continues to fester. Japanese and Chinese relations have suffered in recent years due to disputes over history and territory, as well as power rivalry in Asia.

A potential military conflict between the two powers in the East China Sea is no longer unimaginable. In order to move forward, the two sides must face reality and change their mentalities.

From the early 1970s, when diplomatic relations were established, to the early 1990s, when the Chinese economy began to take off, the Chinese viewed their smaller neighbor with admiration, hoping to emulate and catch up with Japan. More Chinese students studied in Japan than in America or Europe during the period. 

The Japanese, meanwhile, viewed China with mixed feelings — both a sense of superiority and a willingness to help China, which suffered from Japan’s past militarism. China was a top destination of Japanese investment and the Official Development Assistance program.

From the 1990s on, the mentality on both sides completely changed. After joining the World Trade Organization in 2001, China’s economic rise expedited. By 2010, China’s total GDP had surpassed that of Japan, trailing only the United States. Some Chinese developed a bloated sense of nationalism, belittling Japan; while the Japanese developed a conflictual attitude towards China — marveling at its rapid growth but sneering at its society that is still backward in many aspects.

Rightists in Japan tend to exaggerate the threat from China and use it as a pretext to revise the peace constitution and transform Japan into a normal country with a regular military. Many Chinese believe Japan is not truly remorseful for its war past, while many Japanese feel China is ungrateful for Japan’s support for China’s modernization.

A new vicious cycle has emerged in the bilateral relationship: The public’s favorability in each nation of its counterpart has sharply plummeted, and each nation blames the other whenever problems arise in the relationship. 

In much of the history of bilateral interaction, China was the stronger party. Japan rose to the top through Meiji Restoration, a rapid industrialization program that began in 1868, leading to victory over imperial China in the 1894-95 Sino-Japanese War, which marked the beginning of Japan’s dominance in East Asia. China remained poor and weak during most of the 20th century. Post-Mao economic reforms fundamentally changed China and the East-Asian power structure.  

For the first time in history, both China and Japan are strong today — a situation that both have difficulty adjusting to, echoing a Chinese saying: “One mountain cannot accommodate two tigers.”

It is not in the interests of either nation to have a prolonged frosty relationship. Japan occupies a significant position in China’s foreign policy since it is where China’s “big power diplomacy” and “good neighbor diplomacy” merge. Without a healthy and friendly relationship with Japan, China cannot claim to have a successful diplomacy. 

China has become the leading economy in Asia. When other U.S. allies, such as Australia and South Korea, are balancing their relations with the United States and China and jump on the wagon of China’s fast growth, Japan must ditch its “ostrich policy” toward China. It is encouraging that Japan recently reversed its cold reaction to China’s ambitious “One Belt One Road” initiative and expressed willingness to participate in the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). 

Japan is also eager to host the Japan-China-South Korea summit later this year, when Chinese Premier Li Keqiang is expected to attend, resuming official exchange of visits at the highest level.

Japan remains a shining example of a traditional society that is highly modernized with an exceptionally clean environment. China must be humble, treat Japan with respect and continue to learn from it. Japan, on the other hand, must overcome its Sinophobia and consider China as an opportunity and partner. It takes two to tango. To move the relationship forward, it’s imperative for both countries to face the reality and adjust their mentality so as to work together to build a better future for the people in both countries and beyond.

Zhiqun Zhu is a professor of political science and international relations at Bucknell University.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill. 

Tags China–Japan relations China–United States relations Economy of China International relations
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