Japan-China Relations, the Senkaku / Diaoyu Islands Dispute, and the Apology Issue

In recent months tensions among East Asian nations have risen as China’s territorial claims seem to become the focus of a more assertive Chinese foreign policy. Most especially, the dispute between China and Japan over the Senkaku / Diaoyu islands has alarmed Western and Japanese public opinion, leading to fears of a possible conflict between the two Asian powers.

Sino-Japanese tensions are partly due to the complex legacy of the Japanese invasion of China in the 1930s and 40s, but also to the rise of Chinese and Japanese nationalism and the shifting economic balance in the region.

Sino-Japanese Relations After World War II

Shortly after the end of World War II, the Japanese government signalled that it wanted to establish diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). However, in the context of the Cold War this was not deemed acceptable by the United States. US Secretary of State J.F. Dulles made clear that Japan’s only option was to establish diplomatic ties with the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan.

On 28 April 1952 Japan signed a separate peace treaty with the ROC (Togo 2012, p. 119). As I shall explain later, Chinese nationalism was based on the concept of “one China”, and both the PRC and the ROC adhered to this principle. When Japan and the ROC signed a separate peace treaty on 28 April 1952, the ROC maintained the position that it was the sole legitimate government of all China. It was therefore agreed that the jurisdiction of the treaty would be “applicable to all the territories which are now, or which may hereafter be, under the control of” the ROC government (see ibid., pp. 119-120). Chiang Kai-shek, despite having been the leader of China during the Japanese aggression, renounced reparation claims, which was seen by the Japanese side as a generous and noble gesture.

Mainland China, however, was too big to be ignored, and Japan sought to establish some form of relation with it. Japan, following the “principle to separate political and economic relations” (ibid.), worked to create economic and cultural ties with the PRC; the PRC, however, saw economic and cultural exchange as an indirect way to promote, in the long term, its “principle of inseparability of political and economic relations” (ibid.).

From the 1950s to the 1970s, unofficial bilateral relations had several highs and lows. For example, in March 1958 a private sector agreement was signed between Japan and China. A new clause specified that the trade representative offices of both sides had the right to raise their own flag. The ROC protested against what it saw as a violation of its role as the sole representative of all Chinese, for such a clause was an implicit, though only partial, de facto recognition of the PRC. The Japanese accepted the ROC’s protest and denied the Trade Representative Office of the PRC the right to use its national flag (ibid., p. 122).

On 2 May, a right-wing Japanese man pulled down a PRC flag at a trade fair in Nagasaki. The man was detained but subsequently released because, according to the Japanese government, he could not be charged of “damaging a national flag”, given that Japan did not recognize the PRC. This infuriated Beijing, which responded with a termination of cultural and economic relations (ibid.).

At the beginning of the 1970s, the changing balance in the Cold War scenario brought about a shift in US-China relations which affected Japan’s stance towards the PRC. US President Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger devised a new policy (part of the detente strategy) based on the recognition that China and the Soviet Union had fallen apart, and that a closer tie with the PRC could benefit the US and weaken Russia. On 15 July 1971 Nixon announced his plan to visit the PRC, taking the Japanese, which were not consulted beforehand, by surprise.

On 25 October 1971 the United Nations, reflecting the American wish to normalize relations with the PRC, approved a resolution that allowed the People’s Republic of China to join the United Nations. In February 1972 Nixon visited China and issued the Shanghai Communique (ibid., pp. 124-127).

When China and Japan began negotiations for the establishment of diplomatic relations, China set three preconditions:

1) China is one entity. The People’s Republic of China is the sole legitimate government that represents the Chinese people.

2) Taiwan is part of China. It is an inalienable part of the territory of China. The Taiwan issue is a domestic issue for China.

3) The Treaty between Japan and Taiwan of 1952 is unlawful and invalid (ibid., p. 128).

On 29 September 1972 a Joint Communique between Japan and the PRC was issued, which established diplomatic relations between the two countries (ibid., p. 129).

Japan recognized the three preconditions China had required. However, regarding to the 3rd point (the Peace Treaty between Japan and Taiwan), the Communique kept a certain ambiguity, stating that:

The Government of the People’s Republic of China reiterates that Taiwan is an inalienable part of the territory of the People’s Republic of China. The Government of Japan fully understands and respects this stand of the Government of the People’s Republic of China, and it firmly maintains its stand under Article 8 of the Potsdam Proclamation (ibid., p. 129).

Article 8 of the Potsdam Declaration simply stated that the “terms of the Cairo Declaration shall be carried out”; the Cairo Declaration of 1943 proclaimed that “all the territories Japan has stolen from the Chinese, such as – Formosa (Taiwan) – shall be restored to the Republic of China.”

The Japanese were unwilling to completely undo the history of their relations with the Republic of China on Taiwan, and so they insisted on a wording that allowed both to regard the Peace Treaty of 1952 as lawful, and at the same time to recognize that the PRC was the legal successor of the ROC.

Paragraph 3 of the Communique further stated that the PRC renounced “its demands for war reparations from Japan” (ibid., pp. 130-131).

Chinese Nationalism and Sino-Japanese Relations

Deng Xiaoping’s Opening up policy re-introduced elements of capitalism in the Chinese economy and thus implicitly admitted that the old Communist planned economy had failed. This, combined with the worldwide fall of Communist regimes and the end of the Cold War, led the Chinese to lose faith in Communist ideology. The Communist Party, recognizing the need to redefine itself to gain the support of the people, used economic development and nationalism as the two major tools to strengthen party rule.

At the same time, many intellectuals began to advocate nationalism. While in the 1980s the West was seen by many Chinese as a source of inspiration, the 1990s became an era of increasing mistrust, which was both a reaction to the emphasis the CCP placed on nationalist education, and to a post-Cold War Western discourse of triumph and superiority expressed in best-selling books  such as The End of History, The Clash of Civilization, and The Coming Conflict with China (see Zhao 2004, pp. 66-67). Many Chinese became aware of a rising Western hubris, and of the fact that the West increasingly saw itself as the sole bearer of the true and best political, economic, and cultural system. Chinese nationalism became a reaction to this assertive Western narrative.

However, it would be wrong to think that Chinese nationalism is a new phenomenon, or that it is only a consequence of China’s economic rise. In fact, modern Chinese nationalism has a long tradition that dates back to the nationalist ideology of Sun Yat-sen, the “Father of modern China”.

Sun Yat-sen (1866 – 1925) promoted a kind of nationalism that was based on the idea of the unity of race, nation and state, whereby “race” is to be understood as the entirety of all ethnic groups living within the boundaries of China. What these boundaries should be, was for Sun very clear. He saw the Chinese nation as having the same territorial extension of Imperial China (Harrison 2006, pp. 100-101). Modern Chinese nationalism, both within the Guomindang and the Communist Party, is derived from Sun’s notion of “one China”. In this respect, Chinese leaders, from Sun Yat-sen, Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong, to Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Ma Yingjiu, all have a similar concept of what “China” is.

Borrowing an expression used by historian Steve Tsang, one could define the Chinese strategy to enhance national interests as the use of “maximum flexibility within a rigid framework”. This means that the Chinese leadership has a clear target, and that it will not make any compromise as to the target itself, but that it is willing to arrive there in different ways as long as its core interests are not undermined. This very attitude can be clearly observed in the Taiwan question. China maintains that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China and that it is prepared to make use of its military to recover the island should it declare independence (rigid framework); however, the Chinese side tries different methods to achieve its goal, from economic co-operation to more or less direct political pressure (maximum flexibility).

The same can be said for the Senkaku / Diaoyu islands. China is not willing to renounce its sovereignty claim, and it will work in the long term to acquire them.

The Senkaku / Diaoyu Issue

The Senkaku islands, know in the PRC as Diaoyu and in the ROC as Diaoyutai Islands, are a group of islets west of Okinawa. In 1895 the Japanese government included them as part of the Okinawa Prefecture. After World War II the islands were administered by the US. In 1968 the United Nations ECAFE stated that oil reserves could be found in that area, and on June 1971 the ROC claimed sovereignty over the Senkaku, followed on December of the same year by the PRC. In 1972, according to the Agreement on the reversion of Okinawa, the US returned the Senkaku to Japan.

The return of the Senkaku to Japan was met with anger not only in the PRC, but also in the ROC. Here, students organized patriotic protests which ended with the signing of so-called “blood letters”.

[The students] arrived in an orderly way at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where outside the gates they broke out into song: ‘Long live our leader’ and declared ‘The Diaoyutai Islands are our territory.’

Over 4,000 students assembled and after the president of the university had made a speech stating his “attitude” to the rally, students gave a series of emotional speeches expressing their opposition to the islands’ accession to Japan. 

[T]he chairman of a combined organizing committee, Tan Jiahua, organized the signing of a petition in blood, or a ‘blood letter’ (xue shu) to present to the American and Japanese embassies. Students lined up at the campus health center where four nurses drew blood from each student, who then took a calligraphy brush to write his or her name. Some students wrote with their fingerprints pricked with a disinfected needle. The blood letter day began at eight in the morning and continued until after six in the evening at which time there were four, ten-meter-long petitions with a total of over 2000 names (Harrison 2006, p. 121).

The first major incident regarding the Senkaku issue between the PRC and Japan happened in 1978, when “100 Chinese vessels gathered around the islands and 40 of them entered into the territorial waters”. Following Japanese protests, the Chinese withdrew and described the incident as “accidental”. Apparently, Deng Xiaoping did not want to focus on the Senkaku and compromise Sino-Japanese relations, preferring to leave the solution to later generations (Togo 2010, pp. 136-137).

The idea of leaving the solution of a problem to future generations is another element of the “maximum flexibility within a rigid framework” strategy, because it avoids direct confrontation and allows the Communist leadership to wait for the right moment when the country is in the position to achieve its goal.

The dispute flared up once again – and most vehemently – in April 2012, when the Governor of Tokyo Shintaro Ishihara announced his intention to purchase with public money the islands from a private Japanese owner (note). This sent a wave of nationalist anger throughout China. On August 12, a group of Hong Kong activists belonging to the Hong Kong Action Committee for Defending the Diaoyu Islands sailed to the islands, and five activists landed on one of them. They were subsequently arrested by the Japanese and sent back to Hong Kong (note 12). A few days later Japanese nationalist activists also landed on the islands and were later detained.

In order to avoid an escalation of the dispute, the Japanese government announced its own intention to purchase the islands. Apparently, the Japanese government believed that if Mr Ishihara bought the islets, the tensions between Tokyo and Beijing would heighten. In fact, Mr Ishihara is known for being a far-right politician. He is the author of the best-seller The Japan that Can Say No, and an advocate of a stronger Japan independent from the United States. He infuriated China on several occasions with his remarks on World War II.

In a famous 1990 interview with Playboy Magazine, Ishihara denied the Nanjing massacre, stating that it was “made up by the Chinese” (Japan and Greater China: Political Economy and Military Power in the Asian CenturyAustin / Harris 2001, p. 50). Despite the pressure from the government, Ishihara said that he would withdraw his bid only if the government pledged to build a harbour on the Senkaku islands in order to assert Japan’s sovereignty (note).

Japan’s Noda Cabinet thus decided to act and purchased three of the islands from the private owner for  2.05 billion yen ($26 million) (note). But instead of soothing Beijing, this move infuriated the Chinese public, which reacted with unusual vehemence and anger. Protests broke out throughout China, with Japanese shops and factories being damaged, the Japanese Embassy being besieged by demonstrators, and people calling for a tougher stance against Japan, for sanctions and even war (note).

The flaring up of anger and nationalist fervour clearly reflects old resentments and an ongoing power re-balancing between the two countries, as the apology issue also demonstrates.

The Apology Issue

The question of Japan’s apology for its war crimes was raised in 1972, when Japan and the PRC normalized relations, and it was resolved (Rose 2005, p. 100). In the preamble of the Joint Communique issued on 29 September Japan declared that “[t]he Japanese side is keenly conscious of the responsibility for the serious damage that Japan caused in the past to the Chinese people through war, and expresses its deep remorse” (Togo 2010, p. 129).

Sino-Japanese relations, although always fragile, remained relatively harmonious in the 1980s and 90s. From the beginning of the 1990s onward, however, the changing domestic and international context led to the deterioration of bilateral relations.

China’s economic performance suddenly began to change the balance of power between China and Japan. Before the 1990s Japan was perceived as the sole big power in East Asia, and its phenomenal growth rates inspired awe and admiration. Japan was the unchallenged example for other Asian nations to follow. But in the early 1990s an economic crisis hit Japan from which it never fully recovered, at least in terms of GDP growth. Japan suddenly found itself in the unusual and frustrating position of having a stagnating and deflationary economy that no government measure seemed able to revive. For a country accustomed for decades to success, this was a major blow and a big loss of faith in its own strength. It was in this period that China’s rise began to be noticed by the rest of the world.

At the same time, the end of the Cold War created a difficult situation for the Chinese leadership. While prior to 1990 the Chinese Communist Party’s role was unchallenged, the emergence of pro-democracy movements at home and the fall of virtually all Communist regimes worldwide frightened the party leadership. The need to show strength, coupled with China’s economic boom, led the Chinese government to be more assertive in its international relations. The growing influence of China and its more aggressive stance towards Taiwan aroused Japan’s suspicions and fears (Sutter 2012, p. 174).

Against this backdrop, the apology issue for the crimes committed by the Japanese during World War II became a thorny one. The formula reached with the Joint Declaration of 1972 was not considered any longer sufficient.

Many Japanese Prime Ministers as well as the Emperor himself offered apologies, which however were often not considered sufficiently honest and heartfelt by the Chinese. On the other hand, the Japanese feel that they did offer sincere apologies and believe that China uses the “history card” for political purposes (Rose 2005, pp. 101-102).

In 1992 Emperor Akihito on his visit to China stated:

In the long history of the relationship between our two countries there was an unfortunate period in which my country inflicted great sufferings on the people of China. I deeply deplore this. When the war came to an end, the Japanese people, believing with a deep sense of remorse that such a war should never be repeated, firmly resolved to tread the path of peaceful nations and addressed themselves to national reconstruction (ibid, p. 101).

In a Joint Declaration of Japanese PM Obuchi Keizo and Chinese President Jiang Zemin in 1998 the first stated:

The Japanese side is keenly conscious of the responsibility for the serious distress and damage that Japan caused to the Chinese people through its aggression against China during a certain period in the past and expressed deep remorse for them (ibid., p. 102).

In 2001 Prime Minister Koizumi said during his visit in Beijing: “I express my heartfelt apology and condolences to the Chinese people who fell victim to aggression” (ibid.).

Nevertheless, these verbal statements are not considered adequate by the Chinese. As PRC Premier Zhu Rongji said in 2000: “Japan has never officially apologized to the Chinese people in any of the official documents” (ibid., pp. 107-108).

In 1994-95, then Japanese Prime Minister Murayama proposed a Diet Resolution which, in the intention of the PM, would create a written, definitive official apology that represented the Japanese position and that would settle the apology issue satisfactorily. However, the majority of the lawmakers rejected this resolution (ibid., p. 102).

Perhaps feeling that he should publicly reiterate the apology for the war crimes after the Diet had failed to pass the resolution, on August 15 1995 Murayama read a statement before taking part in the official ceremony in honour of the war veterans:

During a certain period in the not too distant past, Japan, following a mistaken national policy, advanced along the road to war, only to ensnare the Japanese people in a fateful crisis, and through its colonial rule and aggression, caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries, particularly to those of Asian nations. In the hope that no such mistake be made in the future, I regard, in a spirit of humility, these irrefutable facts of history, and express here once again my feelings of deep remorse (tsuusetsu na hansei) and state my heartfelt apology (kokoro kara no owabi) (Yamazaki 2006, p. 103).

Yet the apology issue is not simply a question of wording. It is rather a matter related to the search for identity of two countries, China and Japan, which both in their own ways have been scarred by the experiences of the last century and are now trying to find their place in the world. The vehemence and fierceness of the reactions on both sides make clear that there is more at stake than simple history interpretation.

In China, anti-Japanese sentiments are intertwined with the collective memory of national weakness and humiliation, and with the desire to be powerful, respected and admired. Anti-Chinese sentiments in Japan are a consequence of the loss of supremacy, but also of a feeling of frustration that comes from being a defeated country that cannot cope with the legacy of its past.

The ambivalence of the Japanese feelings is shown by the words of ex Prime Minister Koizumi, who during the presidential campaign of 2001 said that he was considering visiting the Yasukuni Shrine, where the souls of soldiers – among them war criminals – are commemorated, “with the feeling that we should never go to war again, and to console the souls of those who died after having no choice but to go to war” (Rose 2005, p. 114).

This statement reveals Koizumi’s oscillation between pacifism and the belittling of war atrocities. As long as China and Japan haven’t solved their own identity issues, and haven’t found an equilibrium based on mutual respect and true friendship, every dispute will lead to vehement reactions, because  it will bear the burden of more than a century of resentment.

Need a website! Start with a £2.69 .CO.UK domain from! - 468x60

3 replies »

  1. Hi Mengdie, thanks for your comment. I do understand your position. As I have tried to show in my post, some Japanese politicians and even the emperor have apologized. But there are also some politicians who openly deny the Nanjing massacre or justify war atrocities. Anyway, I would like to know what you think the Japanese should do in order to solve the problem of Sin–Japanese relations.


  2. There is nothing the Japanese government can do to ease tensions. Simply because this is how the CCP uses it's citizens to stroke nationalism. This is the only way the CCP can stay in power in China. If not for this issue, it would be Taiwan, and if not for Taiwan it would be something else. CCP needs to deflect as much as they can from their own domestic problems or else it is the end of the 1 party system in China as we know it. As you know, Taiwan is quite upset about this issue too, as it was an old fishing ground for fishers in Yilan county, but you don't see them toppling over cars and wrecking private property do you?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s