A Brief History of Sino-Japanese Relations

The relationship between The People’s Republic of China and The County of Japan is meaningful in the commercial realm but marred by sensitivities in the political and social realms. Historically a great rivalry existed between a declining China and an ascending Japan. The Meiji restoration increased development in Japan while a clash between Western powers and Imperial China brought the Mainland nation to near destruction. Imperial China fell behind in the race for technological and military development as Japan moved ahead with the aid of its new western partners, particularly the British and German. Japan moved so rapidly ahead with industrialization and militarization that by 1904 they managed to sink the Russian Navy in Port Arthur, coveted by the Russians because of its warm water capabilities in contrast to Vladivostok’s seasonal operation capacity. The victory was unexpected by observers and significantly altered the balance-of-power in East Asia. However it was much earlier that the competition between China and Japan was favoring the Pacific nation.

The Japanese model had gained political appeal in China, from not only revolutionaries and reformists but the Emperor himself. The young Emperor ruled for less than 100 days, in what was to be termed the Hundred Days’ Reform before being put under house arrest by the Empress Dowager. A conservative coup reestablished her control and after the Boxer Rebellion of 1904, in which multiple nations Western and Japan carved China more than it had already been carved, even the Empress became a reformer in the Meiji image. Japan has no comparable history in this time period, though class structure changed, it occurred within the established order and preserved the emperor. In China, the 1911 Revolution would sweep away any remnants of the imperial order (though the Examination System has already been abolished, perhaps the greatest reform in Chinese history).

Why bring up this history when referring to Japan and China’s relations today? Besides the fact it is an extremely fascinating history, it also has parallels exhibited in East Asia today. Referring to earlier, China and Japan have important trade ties. The trade flow from Japan to China is approximately 200 billion and from China to Japan approximately 150 billion. That’s a combined trade flow from 1998 – 2011 upwards of 250 billion, skyrocketing between 2001-2005 and 2009-2011 specifically. It would be unfortunate and serving of neither if that growing trade relationship were to collapse under nationalist pressure. But back to history, the relationship between trade and public anger is not new. The May 4 Movement of 1911-1919 brought young people into the streets, protesting against Japanese companies stationed in China. The Japanese-serving terms of the 1919 Treat of Versailles brought even more anger from the Chinese public. Today, publics have the ability to organize and operate at a higher and faster level than ever before, including 1919. The chance for collective disruption of ties is increasing.

Some authors speak about the idea of Asian Values; the fear of instability being the most preponderant concern of the public. This history tells a different story. Publics in Asia may be willing to risk their lives and fight authoritative institutions (Police) of the state to assert their nationalist passions if they feel their government are not adequately preserving their national sovereignty or honor.

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