Sino-Japanese relationship haunted by ghosts of the past (The Financial Express (Bangladesh))

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) observed on Thursday (September 03) the 70th anniversary of victory in the ‘People’s War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression’ as the years leading up to and during the Second World War are known in China. At the fag end of the Second World War, China was winning against Japan. The latter surrendered to the Allied forces on September 03, 1945. China observes the day as ‘Victory Day”. This year, China arranged a grand parade and showcased its military hardware. Russian President Vladimir Putin, South Korea President Park Geun-hye and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, among the representatives of more than 30 countries, attended the ceremony.

The PRC has recently increased its military strength in the disputed maritime areas. There are conflicting claims and interests over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea between China and Japan. The latter purchased three of the islands from their private owners in September 2012. China denounced it and claimed its control over these islands. It also declared to establish an “air defence identification zone” in the East China Sea. Press reports suggest that both China and Japan have increased their naval and air patrol over the area. In April, 2014, US President Barack Obama said that the disputed islands were covered by the US-Japan Security Treaty implying the possibility of US involvement, if required, in any potential conflict between China and Japan.

Moreover, Beijing claims sovereignty over large areas of the South China Sea. These are home to maritime lanes vital to global trade. These territorial and jurisdictional disputes in the South China Sea are not involving only Japan but also some other Southeast Asian nations. It is said that there are 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the disputed territories of the South China Sea. There are competing claimants like Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, Vietnam, Taiwan and the Philippines. China has warned its South-east Asian neighbours against drilling for oil and gas in the disputed region of the South China Sea.

The USA wants free navigation and sea lines of communications (SLOC). Washington has also a defence treaty with Manila which gives scope to draw the US into any potential Sino-Philippines conflict. On several occasions, the US expressed its determination for free navigation in the South China Sea. Even during his visit to India in January, 2015, President Barack Obama said “the freedom of navigation must be upheld and disputes must be resolved peacefully”. This may also be treated as a part of Obama’s “Pivot East” policy that attempts to reinvigorate US alliances in the Asia-Pacific region. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe perhaps avoided the invitation of China to attend the September 03 ‘Victory Day’ parade as this might give approval to Chinese activities in the East China and South China Sea.

Both China and Japan have historical problems in their bilateral relationship. The Chinese curriculums are heavily loaded with the contents of rivalries and hostilities starting from the First Opium War (1839-1842) down to the end of the Second World War in 1945. There are numerous museums, monuments and historical sites demonstrating past tragedies. The “Nanjing Massacre” still remains as one of the most debated historical issues between the two countries. An inherent perception gap is said to exist among the general people of the two countries. The Chinese attitude appears to be angered by Japanese action of nationalising some of the disputed Senkaku/Digoya islands and Japanese Prime Minister Shingo Abe’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine where are buried Japanese war-time leaders who were executed for war crimes after their trial at the end of the Second World War).

China displayed its military strength on the occasion of the ‘Victory Day’ celebrations. The media has also given account of its forces and military hardware (land, navy and air force). China unveiled “carrier killer’ missiles and its shift of emphasis on naval strength. Analysts see it as a growing rivalry of China with the USA in the Pacific. Japan and also India might have looked askance at the enormous military strength of China.

Japan, on the other hand, under the leadership of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, has declared “collective self-defence”. It implies that Japan can fight on behalf of its allies even if it is not itself under attack. For a quite long time Japan has been pursuing a policy what analysts term as “Salami tactics” to avoid its constitutional embargo on militarism. As a first step, the Abe cabinet approved the relaxing of the principles and guidelines for weapons exports last year that appeared to end a strict ban lasting for more than fifty years. It also participated in military operations (albeit in a non-combat role) in Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts. Moreover, Japan has increased its defence expenditures. The informal rule was that Japan would restrict its military expenditure to 1.0 (one) per cent of GDP. Abe breached it. The defence budget has been increasing. It is now around 2.0 per cent of GDP (gross domestic product). The reasons as mentioned for the increase in the defence budget are North Korean missile launches, Chinese naval manoeuvres and terrorism in the Middle East. Analysts suggest that Japan has already built a strong defence system that can fight other military powers.

The rising military strength of China is indirectly helping India in South Asian region. Observers suggest that both the USA and Japan have started technological and hardware support to India to contain People’s Republic of China.

But it appears that both China and Japan are showing maturity by not involving in any direct military conflict. Both nations have sad memories of wars. It is hoped that the phenomenal growth of Chinese defence capabilities and the strength of Japan’s collective defence will result in peaceful co-existence in Asia Pacific region.

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