The late Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Kwan Yew once typified the China-Japan relationship as one where, on one side (China’s) nothing is forgotten, and on the other (Japan’s) nothing is remembered. This neat summary comes towards the end of June Teufel Dreyer’s comprehensive overview of the relationship – Middle Kingdom and Empire of the Rising Sun: Sino-Japanese Relations Past and Present, (Oxford, 2016). She follows it up with another of Lee’s observations: that in history Asia has never, at one time, seen a strong China and a strong Japan happily cohabiting.
In the second decade of the twenty-first century, we have the uncomfortable situation of China now being the world’s second largest economy, and Japan (which held that spot until 2010) it’s third. That looks like an immediate recipe for trouble, testing Lee’s second hypothesis above. And as Dreyer shows in the last half of her book, since the late 1990s the relationship between the two countries separated (in the cliché used by Chinese leaders) by a “narrow stretch of water” has grown increasingly perplexed.
We tend to focus on the ways in which the memories of the Second World War still cast such a long and profound shadow across this region. The atrocities committed by the Imperial Japanese army from 1937 onwards in China have been well documented. As Cambridge scholar on this era Hans van der Ven has said, the fundamental phenomenon we saw in this war was a fully modernised, industrialised country throwing its full assets at an agrarian, largely pre-modern one. The results were unspeakably brutal. No wonder this continues to reside in the popular memory in China.
Even so, Dreyer’s book puts this in the context of over two millennia of what can only be described as intense competition, reaching back to the late Han, and then into the Tang, the Song, the Yuan, and the Ming dynasties. Even in the era of Japanese enclosure in the shogunate of Tokugawa from the early seventeenth century onwards the Chinese and Japanese continued to link to each other. Yet, as Dreyer shows, such links and bonds were seldom, if ever, a recipe for mutual harmony. Buddhism, and Chinese characters may have migrated across the “narrow stretch of water” and had a deep and lasting impact in Japan. But the Japanese, as anyone who has ever been there will know, are a nation very proud of their unity and their ability to take things and make them something distinctive and different.
Dreyer’s conclusion is that the troughs and peaks of feeling between the two nations are simply a part of what makes them what they are, and it would be naive to think these will ever easily be dispelled. In the end, it is a case of management – somehow having protocols and restraints between them that stop the disasters that happened eight decades ago. This, more than anything else, implies a strong buffering role for the US in the region. Were the US, as Donald Trump has suggested, to simply withdraw, then China and Japan face the very real possibility of clashing with each other. And as this book testifies in great detail, 2000 years of history have shown that nothing, repeat nothing, good results when China and Japan fight each other.