China and Japan: Friends or Enemies?

April 09, 2013

China and Japan: Friends or Enemies?

by Prof. Tommy Koh

Published in Lianhe Zhaobao on 2nd April 2013 and the Straits Times on 9th April 2013



Having just visited Japan, I came away with the disturbing impression that most of the Japanese public intellectuals I met had a negative attitude towards to China.  They perceived China’s rise as a threat to Japan.  They thought that as China grows in power it will seek to impose its will on its neighbours.  They believed that China has abandoned Deng Xiaoping’s policy of “tao guang yang hui”.  Instead, they believed that China is seeking to impose its hegemony on the region.


My Chinese interlocutors, on the other hand, blame Japan for causing the current tensions.  They feel that by nationalising three of the islands, Japan has violated the understanding reached by Prime Minister Tanaka and the China’s leaders in 1972.  They are angry that Japan is not willing to acknowledge the existence of a dispute.  They suspect that Japan is being made use of by the United States in an alleged attempt to contain China


In this essay, I wish to remind the leaders of China and Japan not to allow the current impasse over the Senkaku/Diaoyu and the passion generated by the accusations and counter-accusations to blind them to the many affinities which they share and the common interests which bind them.


Geography, History and Culture

Geographically, China and Japan are destined to live next door to each other until the end of time.  Since there is nothing they can do to move away from each other, they have no choice but to learn to get along as good neighbours.


Historically, relations between China and Japan go back at least two thousand years.  For most of that time, the two countries lived at peace with each other.  The four exceptions were: i) the war between Tang China and the Paekche, a tributary of Japan, on the Korean peninsula in 663; ii) the two unsuccessful attempts by Yuan China (under the Mongols), to invade Japan, in 1274 and 1281; iii) the Japanese war against Qing China in 1894 - 1895; and iv) the Japanese war against China from 1931 to 1945.


Culturally, there has been much mutual learning.  In ancient times, Japan received from China the Chinese written script, kanji, Confucianism and Buddhism.  In the past century, however, Chinese students and intellectuals have gone to Japan to learn science, medicine, engineering, and how to re-make China into a modern state.  At present, there are more than 69,000 Chinese students studying in Japan, comprising more than 50 percent of the foreign students in Japan.


Normalisation of Relations

Following President Nixon’s historic visit to Beijing, Japan lost no time to normalise its relations with China.  In September 1972, Prime Minister Tanaka visited China and met with the Chairman Mao and Premier Chou Enlai.  Diplomatic relations were established on the 29th of September 1972.  A treaty of peace and friendship was concluded on the 12th of August 1978.


During the past 41 years, relations between China and Japan have expanded in all spheres of activities.  For example, China is today Japan’s largest trading partner.


Japan’s Usefulness to China

In what ways has Japan helped China during the past 40 years?  First, from 1972 until 2004, China was a major recipient of Japan’s official development assistance estimated at over US$40 billion.  Second, Japan is the largest investor in China.  By the end of 2012, Japan had invested US$83.9 billion in over 43,000 projects.  Third, Japan is China’s third largest trading partner.  Fourth, Japan strongly supported China’s accession to the WTO.  Fifth, Japan was the first Group of 7 country to resume high-level contacts with China, following the Tiananmen incident of 1989.  In short, Japan has played a pivotal role in China’s development since 1972.


China’s Usefulness to Japan

In what ways have Japan benefitted from China?  First, China is Japan’s largest export market and number one trading partner, accounting for 20 percent of Japan’s total trade value.  Second, China is an important source of tourism for Japan.  In 2011, 1.04 million Chinese tourists visited Japan, representing 17 percent of the total number of tourists who visited Japan that year.  Third, China is one of the largest markets in the world for Japanese automobiles, a key industry of Japan.  Fouth, China is Japan’s biggest national debt holder.  By the end of 2011, China held a total of US$230 billion of such debt.  In conclusion, it would not be wrong to say that China has become an indispensable economic partner of Japan.  Prime Minister Abe’s third arrow is, in part, dependent on the continuation of the good economic relations between the two economies.


Relationship Is Mutually Beneficial

The Chinese and Japanese economies are fundamentally complementary and not competitive.  The relationship is therefore mutually beneficial.  Japan needs China and China needs Japan if both are to succeed.  It makes good sense of them to cooperate and no sense for them to view each other as enemies.


East China Sea as a “Sea of Peace, Cooperation and Friendship

In a joint statement issued by President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, on the 7th of May 2008, they pledged to work together to make the East China Sea into a “Sea of Peace, Cooperation and Friendship”.  Today, we have a disagreement between Japan and the Republic of Korea over Dokdo/Takeshima, and another between Japan and China over Senkaku/Diaoyu.  The East China Sea is in danger of becoming a theatre of conflict.  I would respectfully remind the leaders of China and Japan of the commitment made by their respective predecessors in 1978.  They should lower the temperature and tone down the rhetoric.  They should pull back their armed forces because of the risk of miscalculation.  Although China, Japan and the Republic of Korea all purport to uphold the rule of the law and although they have nationals who are judges in the International Court of Justice and the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, the three governments seem unwilling to refer their disagreements to arbitration or adjudication.  This being the case, they should therefore explore other non-legal options to solve or manage their disagreements.  The options include negotiating a code of conduct, setting up a sub-regional fishery organisation and applying the concept of joint development to the resources in the areas of disagreement.



The Tembusu (Fagraea fragrans) is a large evergreen tree in the family Gentianaceae. It is native to Southeast Asia. Its trunk is dark brown, with deeply fissured bark, looking somewhat like a bittergourd. It grows in an irregular shape from 10 to 25m high. Its leaves are light green and oval in shape. Its yellowish flowers have a distinct fragrance and the fruits of the tree are bitter tasting red berries, which are eaten by birds and fruit bats.