History Will Continue to Haunt Japan’s Relations with China

Editorial Staff

In 2015, history has cast a darker shadow on Japan’s relations with China than at any time since normalization of relations in 1972. This was the seventieth anniversary year of war’s end, Sino-Japanese relations were hesitantly emerging from three troubled years, and Xi Jinping and Abe Shinzo were pursuing agendas that showcased their differences over history. Given these factors, should we expect history to assume far less importance in the next year or two? If not, will Japan be at fault for stirring the history pot or will it be primarily China’s responsibility? These are the questions at the core of this issue’s Alternative Scenarios.

Exchanges of late in Washington DC reveal the continued sensitivity of these issues, overlapping with concern over historical memory further complicating Japan-ROK relations. Speakers reflecting official Japanese thinking dismiss the notion that the history dimension matters except as a “card” played by China or a reflection of the emotionalism of South Korea, which US pressure should resist by insisting that only security should be of concern in the US-Japan-ROK alliance triangle. Former officials who managed Washington’s relations with Tokyo are divided in whether they view security as now of such overriding concern that Abe’s “largely successful” handling of the Abe statement leaves the history issue behind us or if further warnings need to be given to Tokyo over mishandling the history issue not only with Seoul but also with Beijing. While many are exhausted with this issue and want to move on, history has a habit of reminding us of its staying power, often at the most unexpected times.

In the exchange between Tessa Morris-Suzuki and Amy King we are pointed to why we should not be sanguine about Tokyo or Beijing allowing history to fade from the news. While some may assume that both have been chagrined by the negative affect on bilateral relations or awakened to the danger of further economic fallout when it could be more damaging, these authors explain why other factors appear to be more important for Abe and Xi. Uncertainty remains, and in their second statements, they weigh the impact of forces that may mitigate the expected divisive driving forces.