Behind the China-Japan rift

Submitted by Anon on 3 May, 2005 - 11:33

By Harry Glass

The diplomatic spat between Japan and China shows no sign of abating, despite several attempts at conciliation.

For the last three weekends, students have attacked Japanese buildings and symbols in the capital Beijing and the Japanese consulates in Shanghai and Beijing. Similar demonstrations took place in Guangzhou and Shenzhen.

The demonstrations were sparked off by the Japanese government's latest approved list of history textbooks, which it publishes every four years.

All but one of the textbooks fail to account for Japanese war-crimes during World War Two. Chinese people particularly resent the glossing over of the Nanjing massacre, in which 300,000 were slaughtered; the rape of thousands of so-called "comfort women"; and germ warfare experiments conducted on Chinese civilians.

Although the current Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi has apologised publicly for Japanese aggression and colonialism during that period, the issue will not go away.

In part this is because of internal Japanese politics, which are shifting to the right.

On the day of the apology, 80 right-wing Japanese MPs, mainly from Koizumi's ruling Liberal Democratic Party, visited the Yasukuni shine that honours the 2.5 million Japanese war dead, including war criminals hanged for their part in atrocities.

But there are also deeper underlying issues.

The growth in China's economy makes it a direct challenger to Japan's economic dominance in east Asia.

The two powers are in dispute over the Senkaku/Daiyou islands in the East China Sea and over exploration rights to natural gas fields on the seabed.

Other diplomatic issues are at stake.

Japan wants a seat on the UN Security Council, and a more active military role in the region - in part backed by US concerns over China's threat to Taiwan.

Regional rivalry between China and Japan lies at the root of any explanation of this dispute.

The deeper reasons behind the Chinese demonstrations are more difficult to determine, because of the nature of the Chinese totalitarian state.

Some commentators believe that the Chinese government encouraged the demonstrations, though others point out the students may have gone further than the government wanted.

Chinese nationalism provides one of the few conduits for political protest, although it is difficult to see how the demonstrations connect to other, social, protests.

Given that China is now Japan's biggest trading partner and that China is credited with pulling Japan out of its long-term economic recession, the ties between the two might be strong enough to overcome these differences.

But the underlying differences will not go away, and go much deeper than a dispute over school books.

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