Asia-Pacific

China-Japan relations flourish in 'new era of friendship': experts

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Locals and experts tell SBS News that relations between Japan and China are going from strength to strength.

After decades of tension between the two countries, China and Japan have hailed a new era of friendship.

The historic foes have been brought closer by trade battles with the US and the developments on the Korean Peninsula, and it’s impacting – positively - on Japanese expats in China.

When Japanese university student Muira Ke arrived in Beijing three years ago, he didn’t always feel welcome.

“When I went shopping, I was negotiating the price with the shop owner. He could tell I was a foreigner and asked me where I was from. When I said I was Japanese he refused to sell to me,” he tells SBS News.

21-year-old Muira Ke arrived in Beijing three years ago.
21-year-old Muira Ke arrived in Beijing three years ago.
SBS News


The 21-year-old’s encounter was symptomatic of decades of tension between the two countries, dating back to World War II. But the bilateral relationship is warming.

When Chinese Premier Li Keqiang visited Japan earlier this month, he and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe hailed it as a new era of friendship.

Mr Abe told reporters: “There is nearly nothing left that is impossible if Japan and China can hold hands together. I'm confident that we can make greater contributions to resolve various regional and global issues.

It’s a far cry from the situation six years ago, when frictions spiked over ownership of the Senkaku – or Diaoyu Islands.

In China, thousands took to the streets in various cities, dragging the Japanese flag on the ground and overturning Japanese-imported cars. The incident was followed by years of anti-Japanese propaganda on television and at the cinema. Japanese foreign-policy scholars say more than 200 anti-Japanese films were made in 2013 alone.

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks during a joint news conference with China's Premier Li Keqiang in Tokyo on May 9, 2018
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks during a joint news conference with China's Premier Li Keqiang in Tokyo on May 9, 2018
AFP

Now Michael Kovrig, senior adviser for northeast Asia for the International Crisis Group, says the two countries are banding together thanks to developments on the Korean Peninsula.

“They view both Kim Jong-Un and Donald Trump as rather erratic players," he told SBS News.

"Both China and Japan are anxious, and they’re both hedging, looking to improve at least the bilateral relationship so that they don’t have any flare-ups, for example in the East China Sea, and so they can deepen their economic relationship.

Mr Kovrig says both countries are also strengthening economic relations in reaction to US President Trump’s trade policies. According to Chinese figures, trade between China and Japan increased to $400 billion (AUD) last year, breaking a six-year downward trend.

“It’s easy to dismiss a lot of this as good vibes but particularly in an Asian culture, it’s not so much about what the leaders agree on concretely, as the signal that goes down through the system and to the public, that ‘hey, relations are ok with Japan now and they’re getting better. Go do business with Japan'.”

Michael Kovrig is the senior adviser for northeast Asia for the International Crisis Group.
Michael Kovrig is the senior adviser for northeast Asia for the International Crisis Group.
SBS News

It’s a message welcomed by Tenma Shibuya, founder of Beijing’s Japanese cultural centre. Based in China for 12 years, Mr Shibuya considers the recent closeness “revolutionary.”

“The relationship between China and Japan is sometimes sensitive and sometimes good. And recently, very recently, Sino-Japan relationship has become intimate and this is a very good thing for us. This “new era” is very welcome because government policies have a big impact on civilian activities,” Mr Shibuya says.

When tensions between the two countries were high, promoting activities at his cultural centre was restricted. Now business can flourish.

“I’ve been here for a long time and witnessed the changes in different periods. For me this change is huge,” continues Mr Shibuya.

A military hotline recently set-up to avoid confrontations at sea is seen as the biggest gesture of goodwill between Beijing and Tokyo yet. Still, China’s maritime ambitions could pose a problem in future.

Yang Bojiang, a researcher of China-Japan relations at China’s Academy of Social Sciences, says he hopes Tokyo will continue to recognise Beijing’s intentions of a “peaceful regional rise.”

“China doesn’t have a history of colonisation, but other countries think according to their experience and assume a powerful country will seek hegemony, and thus don’t believe us," Mr Yang says.

Student Muira Ke says differences remain but is hopeful the two can put their rivalry behind them.

"Before, things between South Korea and North Korea was bad, and it suddenly improved. With China and Japan there’s still a part that’s negative, so I hope the Sino-Japanese relationship can also gradually improve.”

The Chinese Premier’s rare visit to Japan prepares the way for reciprocal visits to each other’s country by President Xi and Prime Minister Abe in coming months.

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