The relations between China and Japan are a complex and multifaceted issue. Although they can generally be considered as problematic, there is not a unique aspect which influences them. Indeed, a multiplicity of factors conditionates the way in which they perceive (and, consequently, behave towards) each other.
For example, their historical occurrences have deeply influenced their bilateral relations.
Indeed, there still is a great antagonism between the two countries concerning some facts occurred during World War II, and the way in which these issues are differently perceived by the Japanese and Chinese public, negatively affect the resolution of such problems.
The most emblematic matter in this regard is that concerning the former Japanese prime ministerial visits to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which is a Shinto shrine founded by Emperor Meiji in 1869 to commemorate all those who died in service of the Empire of Japan. Nowadays, it also memorializes those who perished fighting for Japan, hence including the combatants who took part in WWII. Among those are 1068 convicted war criminals, which were also involved in the fighting in China.
Official visits to this place are frequently criticized, and in 2005 the visit of Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi led to the cancelation of the scheduled visit of Japanese Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura in Beijing.
The current Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, visited the Yasukuni Shrine in 2013, during his second mandate as Prime Minister. This occurrence caused the resentful reaction from China and South Korea, which are contrary to the glorification of such a monument, since it is perceived as celebrating Japan’s past colonial exploitation and war criminals.
Other key issues are the revision of Japanese history textbooks, the Nanjing massacre and the implication of the so-called “comfort women” by Japanese soldiers in the event of the invasion of new territories.
What China perceives is that Japan has not sufficiently apologized for its past attacks towards it, while the greatest part of Japanese public considers having enough apologized. [Gustafsson Karl, 2016]
We should keep in mind that the public opinion conditionates the way in which leaders express themselves, and the statement which Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made in the event of the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII is a clear example of this. Although he expressed sentiments of sadness and repentance for the war, he specified that “Japan has repeatedly expressed the feelings of deep remorse and heartfelt apology for its actions during the war” and “In Japan, the postwar generations now exceed eighty per cent of its population. We must not let our children, grandchildren, and even further generations to come, who have nothing to do with that war, be predestined to apologize.” [Shinzo Abe, 2015]
A widespread opinion among the Japanese public is that China “educates” its people towards an anti-Japanese feeling, and this leads to a difficulty in fixing the historical issues.
But history is not the unique factor which negatively influences the relations among the two countries; geopolitical factors should be taken into consideration too.
First of all, we should not forget the North Korean issue, which creates a great division between Japan and China; the difference of perspectives on the problem resulted particularly evident in the context of the Six Party Talks. On that occasion, China assumed a softer posture towards North Korea, while Japan would have preferred harsher solutions, since its behavior was influenced by the issue of abduction of Japanese citizens by North Korean agents.
The North Korean threat is one of the causes which are more frequently appealed for a constitutional change and rearmament of Japan, and should this happen, it might cause new diplomatic tensions between China and Japan.
Another issue which has caused diplomatic tensions is the dispute concerning the possession of the Senkaku Islands. This is a group of eight small, uninhabited islands, which are close to rich fishing grounds and oil and gas reserves. The archipelago theoretically belongs to Japan, but the rights on this territory are also claimed by China and Taiwan. The Senkaku Islands issue led to moments of great tension between China and Japan, as for example in the period 2012-2013, when China started frequently sending its government vessels into Japan’s territorial waters around the islets as well as into the contiguous zone to demonstrate its claim over the Senkakus.
However, in last years, China and Japan have recognized the necessity to improve their bilateral relations; in the event of the G20 summit in Germany in July 2017, both Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stated the importance of a collaboration between the two countries.
A sector of strict interdependence and liaison between the two countries is the economic one; indeed, China is Japan’s largest trading partner and its biggest source of foreign visitors. At the same time, Japan is an important source of foreign direct investment and manufacturing expertise for China.
Hence, the two countries are narrowly interconnected at an economic level, but they are also challengers in gaining a predominant position in the East-Asian context, and this rivalry has frequently stood out for reasons ranging from the historical, to the diplomatic, to the geopolitical level.