By Zhang Tuosheng
In recent years, the two big powers of East Asia China and Japan have been locked in a stalemate, with political and security friction escalating and sometimes spilling outside bilateral relations. Under these circumstances, mutual suspicion of strategies has intensified. Certain Japanese politicians have openly trumpeted the "China threat" while China worries about Japan's deviation from its post-war policy of peaceful growth. Media reports from both countries even propagate the theory that "a war is inevitable." Where does the relationship stand and where will it go? These are the challenges that will confront China in its peaceful development.
What part do Sino-Japanese relations play in China's peaceful development? How will the two impact each other? What actions are in the common interests of the two nations? Here are my opinions on these important matters:
First, a positive Sino-Japanese relationship is essential to China's peaceful development.
To grow peacefully, China needs wide support and understanding from the international community, including both developing countries and developed countries, small and medium-sized countries as well as regional and world powers. Japan, as the world's number two economy and a regional power with colossal influence, occupies a special position.
In fact, the success of China's series of foreign policies, such as commitment to building a world of "harmony and mutual benefit," developing positive big power relations, working for a sound environment with neighboring countries, and adopting policies of "friendliness with neighbors" in an effort for collaborative development, depends largely on relations with Japan.
But it is by no means easy to build long-term relations of friendliness and collaboration in the 21st century. The two nations have different social systems and ideologies; there are serious disputes over territorial and oceanic claims; Japan has historically inflicted damage on China and animosity still lingers; competition has increased as the two have manifested similar strengths. These factors will add more difficulties to the handling of bilateral relations.
But despite the challenges, we must move forward and improve Sino-Japanese relations. A good relationship between the two nations is essential to the peaceful growth of China. It is a historic test of the intelligence and insight of the Chinese nation.
A former senior official of the US government and an expert in Chinese affairs once said that if China could handle its relations with Japan in the process of its own rise, the US would have more confidence in China's peaceful growth. I agree with his assessment to a certain extent.
In the long run, the healthy development of Sino-Japanese relations will provide a stimulant to China's peaceful development; it will also be a positive demonstration for China's relations with Western powers and a rebuttal of the "China threat" assertion. There are both challenges and opportunities tied to the Sino-Japanese relationship, which we must face head-on.
Second, a relationship that is friendly, neighborly and cooperative in the long run is in the best interests of both nations.
When China and Japan restored diplomatic relations in the 1970s, leaders of both nations came to the conclusion that "the two would both benefit when there is peace and suffer when there is war." Since then, bilateral relations have undergone fundamental changes, as has the international environment. But the historic conclusion has not changed; rather, it has increased in significance with the end of the Cold War and the world becoming multi-polar and on a fast track toward globalization.
Geopolitically, the two are big neighboring powers; economically, they are trading partners that complement each other; on the stage of the rise of East Asia or Asia in general, the two play the principal roles; on the trilateral relations of China, the US and Japan, the Sino-Japanese relationship is a major variable; on peace and stability across the Taiwan Straits, the two nations have overlapping interests and divergences; on keeping sea lanes safe and coping with non-traditional security threats of ever increasing severity, the two share common interests that grow larger by the day.
With so much at stake, the two nations would have an unthinkable future if they were entangled in long-term conflict or even head-on confrontation. This is something that perceptive politicians and the public from both nations would hate to see. The only reasonable option is to develop a friendly and cooperative relationship.
Third, it takes joint efforts from both sides to improve relations.
As it stands, the Sino-Japanese relationship is at an impasse, but we should not be pessimistic about it. Recently, Chinese leaders reiterated, during their meetings with Japanese guests, that China has not changed, and will not change, its policy of keeping its relations with Japan on a long-term neighborly and cooperative basis.
In Japan, difficulties in bilateral relations have also caused concern among the discerning public. Some parliamentary members have expressed their hope, in television interviews, that relations will improve, and they have made various proposals. Japanese leaders have pointed out on many occasions that Japan still sees its relationship with China as one of the most important, in terms of its foreign policy.
In light of the background, what can be done for both sides to push for amelioration? Three areas have caught my attention:
First of all, we should make stabilizing bilateral relations to prevent them from further deteriorating a top priority. Both sides should take forceful measures to stop the transformation from "cold politics versus hot economy" to "cold economy coupled with cold politics;" they should prevent military accidents in the East China Sea and prevent future incidents of confrontation; they should keep official contact and dialogue open and push for another channel for dialogue, especially people-to-people exchanges, which will be a guarantee of stability.
Second, when relations are stabilized, the impasse on the Yasukuni Shrine should be broken so that high-level contact can be resumed. As "it takes the one who tied the knot to untie it," Japanese leaders should proceed from the fundamental interests of their nation and make the right decision. The resumption of high-level contact will be a landmark in restoring bilateral relations to normalcy.
Third, when relations are back to normal, both sides should manage and ease tension on the Taiwan question as well as the historic issue, disputes over territorial and oceanic rights, and work out a plan on the joint development of the East China Sea. At the same time, both should carry out dialogues to dispel strategic suspicion, thereby launching the process of mutual strategic trust.
Looking into the future, as long as both nations keep to the road of peaceful development and abide by the political framework built since 1972, place common interests high on the agenda and share common ground while accommodating differences, we can anticipate the day when difficulties are resolved and healthy relations restored.
The author is director of the Research Society of China International Strategy.
(China Daily January 25, 2006)