January 29, 2014

The Coming Chinese New Year Marks a Historical Moment of Sino-Japanese Relations

This week, Chinese people all over the world are celebrating the Chinese New Year. But this coming year for China may be shadowed by its growing tensions with Japan. At Davos, Japanese Prime Minister Abe compared the Sino-Japanese relations with the relations between German and Britain before WWI. Officials in Beijing responded to the comparison between China and the revisionist German Empire by citing Japan’s invasion into the Asian mainland in the 19th and 20th centuries.

This year in China’s traditional sexagenary lunar calendar cycle, is named Jiawu, which marks the 120th anniversary – two full cycles – of First Sino-Japanese War in 1894. The defeat of the then Chinese empire resulted in the most humiliating Treaty of Shimonoseki, in which Taiwan was ceded to Japan. The treaty also led to Japan’s control of the Diaoyutai (Senkaku) Islands, which, according to Chinese officials, are affiliate islets of Taiwan.

Now, after two cycles of years, the two major economies in East Asia is again at a dangerous crossroad: heading the National Security Commission, President Xi is taking assertive actions strengthening China’s territorial claims in the East and South China Sea, while Prime Minister Abe’s planned Yasukuni visit further arouses nationalist sentiments of Japan’s neighboring countries. Although both sides see no interest starting a war, rising nationalist sentiments, increasing interactions in disputed waters, and lack of communication and dialogues can lead to unexpected incidents and escalation.

So far, Chinese officials have been careful not to over emphasize the anniversary. But in a year that has symbolic meanings for Sino-Japanese history, some memorial days may witness public nationalist activities or symbolic movements by the military. April 17th is the date that the Treaty of Shimonoseki was signed. While early stages of the First Sino-Japanese War began in June, September 17th remarks the decisive defeat of China’s Beiyang Fleet in the war. The next day, September 18th, is widely recognized as the day of “national humiliation”, memorializing Japan’s invasion in Manchuria in 1931. Other memorial days related to Sino-Japanese history are July 7th, the day of the Marco Polo Bridge incident; and September 3rd, marking Japan’s formal surrender to the Allied powers to close WWII. Observers watching Sino-Japanese tension may want to pay extra attention around some of these days.

For the United States, there is no quick answer how to react to the Sino-Japanese tension. Should the US work to reduce tensions and facilitate risk management mechanism, at the risk of China taking advantage of risk-adverse US policy and making further actions in the water? Should it take tough positions aligned with its ally to contain China, at the cost of China’s cooperation on other issues, including North Korea? The ongoing tension between China and Japan will continue to place the United States at a delicate position. 

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