Sino-Japan relations and India


back to issue

JAPAN’S links with China are both historic and cultural. Buddhism came to Japan via China and even the script that modern Japanese uses locates its origins in China. Though it is not within the scope of this article to trace the historical political and cultural links with China, some examples from recent Japanese history might be necessary to acquaint the reader with the imperatives that shape and influence the Japan-China relationship today.

In 1867 the abolishment of the Shogunate and the accession to the throne of the 15 year-old Mutsuhito, who became the Emperor Meiji, started Japan’s bold step forward towards the 20th century long before the 19th had ended. China had by then become a playground for European powers and was of considerable interest to the Japanese.

In 1881 Kotaru Hiraoka founded the Genyosha or the Black Ocean Society with the professed aim ‘to honour the imperial family’, ‘respect the empire’ and ‘guard the rights of the people’. The Genyosha also had a deep and abiding interest in China. They shaped public and private opinion on China and represented the views of the establishment. Within a few years several societies had sprung up with aims (i.e. of expanding Japanese influence overseas, mainly in China and Korea, and acquiring intelligence from them and Russia) similar to the Genyosha. By 1898 most of these societies had amalgamated to form the East Asia One Culture Society.

By 1882 Mitsuru Toyama, one of the leading members of the Black Ocean Society (who was later to almost adopt Rash Behari Bose in Japan), had around a hundred men collecting information about China, and more specifically the Chinese secret societies. By the late 1880s, he was not only supplying the Japanese government with intelligence information but was also carrying out tasks in China for the Japanese army.



The effectiveness of the Japanese attempts to infiltrate Chinese political institutions and those shaping them is best illustrated by the first real historical record of the time. Hiraya Amane, a radical intellectual who established contacts with Chinese revolutionaries, wrote the Zhong Guo Bi – Mi She-Hui Shi, a record about the triads and similar organisations. Also, many Chinese revolutionaries working against Kang Yu-Wei and Liang Ch’i-Ch’ao sought exile in Japan where they were supported by societies like the Genyosha. By 1895 Japan had won its war against China and not only exacted heavy compensation but also annexed Formosa and won rights to develop mines and construct railways in Manchuria.

It would be dangerous to merely impute imperialistic motives to the Japanese interests in China. Policy makers in the Japanese government and the people who influenced them were on the right on some issues and strongly leftist on others. The China lobby of the government held two broad views. One section held the view that a unified China cooperating with Japan was in their best interests. The other believed that Manchuria and part of the northern territories of China should be an area of Japanese influence, and were quite happy to leave the rest of China under Sun Yat Sen.

To properly understand the motives underlying Japan’s policy in China one needs to understand the spirit of liberalism that developed in Japan in the latter part of the 19th century. This spirit of liberalism genuinely lay behind the Japanese wish to help its neighbours in the Far East, such as China, which Japan believed had been exploited by western powers. Later, the desire to help these neighbouring countries was seized upon by the nationalists to extend Japanese influence in the region. Unfortunately, however, the entire exercise degenerated into empire building and alienated the very forces desiring Japan to play a leading role in the revitalisation of Asian countries.



Japan’s role in Asian affairs from the latter part of the 19th century to the end of the Second World War is well documented and need not be elaborated here. At the end of the war, Japan was a shattered country and every aspect of the country had to be rebuilt. One feature of the rebuilding that took place after WWII was that the resulting shape of things, be it was government policy or society, was very different from pre-war precedents.

Japan had no official relations with China from 1945 to 1972. However, people like Sionji Kinkazhu who lived in China in a private capacity, playing the role of an unofficial ambassador, were important in furthering an unofficial exchange of views and positions between the two countries.

In the coming years trade was to become a key element of the political and the strategic relationship between China and Japan. In the early ’60s Zhou Enlai, for political reasons, had sought to diversify China’s economic links away from Moscow. Zhou initiated a programme where Japanese companies designated as ‘friendly’ were permitted to trade with China. Japanese policy during this same time focused on building a stable relationship with their giant and sometimes belligerent neighbour by separating politics from economics.

Official relations between the two countries were re-established in 1972. The political rise of Deng Xiaoping and the economic reforms he initiated bode well for Sino-Japan relations. In 1978 the two countries signed a Long Term Trade Agreement and a Treaty of Peace and Friendship.



Although an unofficial five year trade agreement had been signed in 1962, trade between the two countries had not really picked up till after the signing of the trade agreement and friendship treaty in 1978. As part of this agreement, Japan agreed to buy 10 billion dollars worth of oil and coal from China. An equal amount was to be paid in the form of providing industrial plants (mainly in iron, steel and petrochemical industries), technology and construction equipment. The long term trade agreement effectively paved the way for a wave of contracts between Japanese companies and China. Finally, the Japanese government provided soft loans to cover China’s purchases from Japanese companies.

By 1985, despite steady improvement in economic relations, political relations had reached a low for two reasons: the visit to the Yasukuni shrine by the then Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, and the revised language in Japanese school textbooks dealing with Japanese atrocities in China. Also by the mid 1980s China was experiencing a particularly large trade deficit with Japan. Student demonstrations in China railed against Japanese militarism and economic imperialism. The then Communist Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang, who was perceived as being pro Japan, also became the target of criticism of the anti Japan lobby.

These events clearly showed a great deal of residual hostility towards Japan that could be easily inflamed. Also, Japanese public attitudes towards its war history were shown to be capable of offending the sensibilities of the Chinese as well as other Asian countries. Nevertheless, the problems of the ’80s were checked by both the Chinese and Japanese governments and the earlier momentum to improve the relationship was maintained. However, despite the efforts of the governments, Japanese investors remained cautious about investing in China and the Chinese actively sought business partners in economies other than Japan.



The Tienanmen massacre was a significant event in the China-Japan relationship. The Japanese response was muted compared to that of most western countries. Ultimately though Japan condemned the Chinese government’s crackdown on the pro democracy movement and withheld its third loan package to China.

In 1990, however, Japan announced that it would resume lending to China despite western criticism. Japanese Prime Minister, Toshiki Kaifu visited China in 1991 and confirmed that Tienanmen was no longer an obstacle to improving and developing the relationship between the two countries. Subsequently, the Japanese business community started pouring investment in China and the Japanese Emperor visited China in 1992. By 1993, the Japanese had acknowledged responsibility for war with China and apologised for their actions.

The Japanese handling of the Tienanmen incident and their subsequent actions, including the declaration that the Japan-China relationship was as important as the US-Japan relationship, created a favourable impression in China and relations between the two countries reached a new high. However, issues like nuclear testing by China, the attitude of certain sections in the Japanese establishment towards the Japanese responsibility for the war, and the complicated issue of the relationship with Taiwan continued to dog their bilateral relationship.



In 1995, Japanese Prime Minister Tomichi Murayama and the Chinese President Jiang Zemin held talks at the APEC summit in Osaka. From this time on relations have more or less been on an even keel and the relationship is gradually heading towards becoming a mature one.

China also sought and received considerable, though not unequivocal, support from Japan for its entry into the WTO. From Japan’s perspective, China’s entry into the WTO was necessary for protecting Japan’s growing economic stake. At present the economic relationship enjoys strong support from all quarters in both China and Japan and the bilateral trade is worth more 65 billion dollars.

In evaluating the Sino-Japanese relationship it would be incorrect to project trends merely on the basis of the published facts and figures. A strong and mutually supportive relationship is viewed in official quarters and certain sections of the public as being not only a necessary corrective to what happened in the latter part of the last and the first half of this century, but also as a strategic imperative. Many commentators have drawn parallels between Sino-Japanese relationship and the post WWII relationship that developed between the United States and Britain after a century of antagonism.

There has been a perceptible shift in Japanese policy giving Asian affairs their due significance. This shift in policy has come about for three reasons. First is the increasing economic importance of East Asia and China. Second, political tolerance for further Japanese penetration of the U.S. and European markets is reaching its limits. Finally, and most importantly, there has been a basic rethink in the Look West policy that Japan followed since the days of Fukuzawa Yukichi to catch up technologically with the West.

Current estimates indicate that by the year 2015 the volume of China-Japan trade will outstrip that between the U.S. and Japan. Continuing economic growth and political stability in China, leading to greater economic integration with Japan, will further contribute to the strengthening of the Sino-Japanese relationship.

Although China and Japan are clearly heading towards a mutual economic partnership, it is less recognized, though in my opinion quite plausible, that they are really moving in the next 10 to 15 years towards a more comprehensive partnership encompassing more than only economic issues. Leaders like Mahathir of Malaysia are already prodding Japan to take a more active role in Asian affairs. It is inconceivable that such an active role could come about without the understanding and support of the Chinese.



What role does India intend to play in Asia? How does it intend to integrate itself in the evolving dynamism of Asia? (I use the word dynamism despite the recent problems experienced by countries in the region.) How do we perceive the growing proximity of Japan and China, which might well evolve into a strategic partnership and is likely to have a major impact on India’s position in Asia? These are questions that must be asked but have not really been answered.

India’s reaction to the developments in Asia, whether those in the Korean peninsula, or ASEAN, or to the developing Sino-Japan relationship, make it apparent that nowhere has India taken a proactive position and the above questions have not been seriously considered. Despite its best efforts India has not made any substantial breakthroughs in its relationship with Japan, China or even ASEAN. Are we missing the Asian bus? I believe we are.



Let us take the case of India’s relationship with Japan, a country situated at the core of so many issues directly or indirectly in Asia. Unlike the Sino-Japanese relationship which evolved step by step over a 20 year period with emphasis on structural reform of the Chinese economy (although much remains to be done) to facilitate Japanese (and other) investments, India has enjoyed little success in its diplomatic and political dialogue with Japan. The fundamental point that has been missed is that Japanese investments will not flow into India and nor will political convergence occur in a significant way until India shows the requisite political will to integrate into and appreciate the political nuances and economic convergence occurring in Asia. Without India demonstrating its commitment to structural reform of the economy and paying attention to developments in the rest of Asia, Indo-Japanese ties will remain as cordial and as unspectacular as they are today.

Even if India appreciates the above it has been only a diplomatic and economic bystander to much of what has been happening in the Asian region. Although much is made of the cultural links between India and Japan and India’s dissenting opinion in the war crimes tribunal in Tokyo, little has actually been done to alleviate or accommodate Japanese concerns and views. Little has been done to improve the poor infrastructure (even in cities like Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai and Calcutta), the inefficiency of the administrative bodies, the high interest rates, the tariff and excise structure, or create an investor friendly exit policy – areas which have all been foregrounded by the Japanese at various levels at different times as being impediments to investing in India.

The Japanese have also stressed the need to broaden ties between India and Japan to issues beyond the economic. This would require an attempt at harmonising India’s diplomatic and economic initiatives with Japanese views of the important issues in Asia.



It must be clarified that when we speak of India’s position we are not only looking at the diplomatic and other initiatives of the government in power but for a broadbased consensus on Asian issues cutting across party lines. A consensus akin to the one that Indian policy on the United States enjoys, where the details may be different but the general framework is by and large understood by the main political parties.

What is India’s stance vis-a-vis the idea of an Asian Monetary Fund or that of a common currency in Asia – thematics that are increasingly being discussed in various circles in Japan? What role would India play in such a fund, even vis-a-vis the idea of a common currency? These issues have not been actively debated in official circles that matter – in academia, in print or any other media. Do we have a framework to deal with such issues? Can India afford to ignore them and still expect to be a part of a resurgent Asia?

Let us not forget that despite the current economic crisis in East Asia, China, mainly because of ASEAN and Japanese concerns, has successfully resisted the devaluation of its currency. This is not an insignificant pointer to the fact that despite differences in political systems there is an undercurrent of seeing issues in the larger Asian context.



At the last ASEAN summit meeting in Manila, its leaders met with the prime ministers of China and Japan and the president of South Korea. This was their third meeting in as many years. This meeting was as Rodolfo Severino, the Secretary General of ASEAN, pointed out, ‘an indication of the general convergence of purpose in East Asia.’ Can India afford to ignore this convergence of purpose and stand isolated from the processes that further it? We do so at the risk of becoming an irrelevant bystander in an increasingly important (both economically and politically) region of the world.

Japan’s improvement of relations with China came about not only because of it’s geostrategic position vis-a-vis China where a stable and prosperous China was deemed essential for its security but also because China is a crucial cog in so many wheels in Asia. The lessons of the Chinese backed insurgencies in Malaysia and Indonesia and an unstable Kampuchea threatening Thailand were well taken into consideration by the Japanese in diplomatically, politically and economically engaging China.

Similarly, India too must justify its relevance to Asia in a pragmatic and positive way (and concentrate on the important issues of improving infrastructure, reducing tariffs and so on) in order to engage the Japanese sufficiently so that Japanese investment in India reaches levels comparable to that in China.