Amelioration of Sino-Japanese Relations Under the COVID-19 Pandemic

“China is a warm-hearted country. I’d love to go to Wuhan and see the cherry blossoms there after the epidemic,” says a 14-year-old Japanese girl from Tokyo who stood outside at a lantern festival all weekend to gather donations for Wuhan, the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic. She epitomizes the belief in reciprocity of goodwill between China and Japan, even though political and military animosity has characterized the dyadic relations for well over a century.

Economic ties 

As Japan’s largest export market, China accounted for an impressive 19% of Japan’s exports, totaling $134 billion in 2019. That same year, Japan imported 23% of its goods from China, adding up to $169 billion. Japan’s second largest trading partner, the United States, is the origin of only half the import volume. Due to the indispensability of the Chinese market and export manufacturing to Japan’s economy, some Japanese experts express concerns that it could increase Japan’s political deference towards China. During the heightened tensions of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands dispute, they feared that the rising animosity over the East China Sea would result in the Japanese Cabinet making undesirable concessions. Analyzing historical events—premodern through the Second Sino-Japanese War—can explain the distrust that characterized the Sino-Japanese relationship.

Sino-Japanese relations throughout history

After the death of the Great Emperor Han Wudi of the Han Dynasty, Japan’s earliest attempt at conducting international relations involved Japanese envoys sending tribute to Han commanderies in the northern part of Korea. China subsequently influenced the roots of the Japanese language, culture, philosophy, law, and religion throughout the classical period, which has left lasting effects to this day. However, due to the expansionist desires and militarist factions of the Japanese Cabinet, Japan launched two major wars on China in the past 130 years. With the country’s modernization came pro-expansionist thought. Japan seized the Liaodong Peninsula, Taiwan Island, and Penghu Islands and demanded war reparations valued at 200 million taels of silver after the First Sino-Japanese War in 1894-1895. 

Influential factions in the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy swayed Japan’s more moderate government towards aggression in the Second Sino-Japanese War in particular. Over the course of the war, known as the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression in China, Japanese soldiers slaughtered or injured about 14 million Chinese civilians and soldiers. Based on still-debated data, the Imperial Japanese Army massacred 200 to 300 thousand civilians within six weeks of its occupation of Nanjing alone.

Influences on anti-Japanese sentiment today

In China’s history textbooks used in schools today, every student in middle and high school learns of Japanese brutality during the invasion; students must even memorize the casualty statistics and various incident details to prepare for the National College Entrance Examination (NCEE). Chinese Communist Party-influenced education reminds each new generation of China’s “century of humiliation” and forced cession of territories to foreign powers. This strategically fuels the Chinese citizenry’s ill will towards Japan, and inculcates a sense of victimhood to generate public support for China’s “national rejuvenation” and consolidate the regime’s legitimacy.

Along these lines, Chinese TV series show a growing tendency towards retelling Second Sino-Japanese War stories, juxtaposing the bravery and selflessness of Chinese fighters and the inhumane behavior of Japanese invaders. Beginning with the birth of TV series Drawing Sword in 2005, more than a hundred television series portraying the two countries’ military conflict emerged within a several years. This drama was broadcast more than 3,000 times in five years; as a result, possibly over a hundred million Chinese people have been exposed to the series’ message, since 126 million families have access to cable television.

To manage the substantial growth in grassroots-level nationalism, the Chinese government announced efforts to limit the frequency and monitor the quality of similarly themed TV series. Although the limitations were enacted, the government’s stance on nationalism is ambivalent at best. Therefore, efforts to dampen this entrenched popular perception of the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression likely will stop short of mending the Sino-Japanese relationship.

Also contributing to the deep grudge between China and Japan, Prime Minister of Japan Shinzō Abe continued the tradition of visiting the Yasukuni Shrine. This memorial temple honors fallen Japanese “warriors,” and it controversially includes 14 Class-A war criminals and 1,068 war criminals in total. The historic tensions heightened in 2017, when China reasserted its territorial claim on the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and the Japanese government refused to recognize it. Moreover, several high school history textbooks in Japan downplayed or outright denied the brutality inflicted on Chinese civilians by Japanese soldiers. These events prompted a further increase in Chinese nationalism and anti-Japanese sentiments. 

Making amends amidst global crisis

The grim state of Sino-Japanese relations prior to the current global pandemic appeared indefinite in nature. However, under the shadow of COVID-19, China-Japan relations have reached a historical pinnacle, not only economically, but also politically and culturally. 

Toshihiro Nikai, Secretary-General of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party of Japan (LDP), powerfully illustrated the Japanese goodwill towards China: “For Japan, when it sees a virus outbreak in China, it is like seeing a relative or neighbor suffering. Japanese people are willing to help China and hope the outbreak will pass as soon as possible.” LDP parliamentarians all chose to contribute 5,000 yen from their March incomes to support Chinese people’s “war” against the Coronavirus outbreak, amounting to a total of 2 million yen.

On top of this donation, the Japanese government sent hundreds of thousands of masks and a tremendous amount of PPE to China. Leaders proposed these actions as both a gesture of neighbor generosity and a signal of goodwill in Sino-Japanese relations to come. However, hope in a China-Japan relational upturn remains fragile as Japan allocated a couple billion dollars of their most recent economic stimulus package towards encouraging their China-based manufacturers to shift central production back to Japan. 

On a more positive note, the global pandemic has enabled the Chinese government to take a step towards partnering closer with other East Asian countries, particularly Japan, to confront the outbreak. Cultivating a teamwork approach in challenging times should yield improved coordination in the China-Japan-South Korea Free Trade Agreement (FTA) and the signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). With the United States’ withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership under the Trump administration, China and Japan are provided a critical opportunity to share leadership roles and engage with other regional powers. The likelihood for successful cooperation should be bolstered by the acts of goodwill during these unprecedented times. 

Relative to what is displayed in the historical and cultural narrative, the future of Sino-Japanese relations may be brighter than expected. As Abe stated after the 2014 APEC meeting, the bilateral relationship must be built on a “strategic mutually-beneficial relationship.” The COVID-19 outbreak has added to the numerous ways in which China and Japan are mutually reliant. A decrease in the proportion of Chinese citizens who held negative impressions towards Japan also signals a turn for the better, as Chinese and Japanese people come to realize that they “live under the same sky” during trying times.

(Image: A 14-year-old Japanese girl raises donations for Wuhan, capital of Central China’s Hubei Province and epicenter of outbreak of the COVID-19 in Tokyo, Japan ; Source: Global Times)

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Chenghan Liu

Chenghan is a UC San Diego undergraduate student studying Earth Science (B.S.) and Political Science (B.A.). Chenghan’s research interests include U.S.-China relations, Korean Peninsula Politics, American Politics, Political Philosophy, and Climate Sciences.

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