Learning the lessons of history

Political courage, responsibility that normalized Sino-Japanese ties 50 years ago needed today

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the normalization of Sino-Japanese relations, and an opportunity for the two countries to revisit history and usher in a better future.

People across the national divide are calling for both sides to stay true to and reaffirm the original aspiration of China-Japan ties.

The tortuous bilateral journey traveled to normalize ties was, first and foremost, an object lesson in great political courage and historical responsibility performed by the leaders of the two countries. 

In the 1970s, as the Cold War raged between the United States and the Soviet Union, the normalization of Sino-Japanese ties ended hostility and contributed to preserving peace in Asia. It also paved the way for China to initiate its reform and opening-up policy and later modernization.

Given the suffering of the Chinese people in the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1931-45), for which Japan owes China a debt of blood, and the complex global political landscape and Japan’s domestic political situation, it undoubtedly required enormous political courage and wisdom to normalize relations.

Compared with the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the United States, or those between the Soviet Union and Japan, the normalization of Sino-Japanese ties was realized in a different manner: It was a two-step process in which the two governments first issued a joint declaration before signing the Treaty of Peace and Friendship, which was approved by their respective legislatures. 

The special arrangement reflected the complexity of the situation at that time.

To keep things on track, China and Japan have signed four political documents over the past half a century: the China-Japan Joint Statement, inked in 1972, which marked the normalization of the bilateral ties; the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between China and Japan in 1978; the China-Japan Joint Declaration of 1998; and a joint statement, signed in 2008, on advancing strategic and mutually beneficial relations in a comprehensive way.

The four political documents are the cornerstone of the development of Sino-Japanese ties. China has urged Japan to honor the promises made on issues concerning China’s core interests or sensitive areas such as the Taiwan question and historical issues.

Over the past half a century, the two-way exchanges between China and Japan have expanded constantly, which has benefited both countries and their peoples. 

Their economies are complementary in nature, and the two countries have pursued win-win cooperation. Bilateral trade has surged from less than $1 billion in 1971 to $370 billion in 2021, benefiting not only the two countries, but also Asia and the world.

China and Japan should now seek to consolidate and expand their common ground, shelve their differences and properly deal with their contradictions and divergences.

The two countries have different national conditions and social systems, and the development of the bilateral ties is beset by maritime disputes and Japan’s historical revisionism, among other issues. 

After the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, there has been friction over issues such as Japanese textbooks that whitewash its wartime acts, territorial rights in the East China Sea and visits to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine by Japanese politicians.

These conflicts and disputes will remain, and might even escalate in the future. 

One such flashpoint is Japan’s meddling on the Taiwan question. Under such a grim situation, China and Japan should honor their commitments, safeguard the foundation for political mutual trust, and properly manage and control their differences and disputes.

Looking back at five decades of Sino-Japanese ties, and against the background of a complex and uncertain international landscape, China and Japan should shoulder their historical responsibilities and stay true to their original aspiration of pursuing peaceful and friendly cooperation. 

Inspiration should be drawn from the political wisdom that saw diplomatic relations established, and the sense of historical responsibility demonstrated by the older generation carried forward to help guide Sino-Japanese relations along the right track.

The two sides should safeguard the political foundation of the stable and healthy development of China-Japan ties, adhere to the four political documents, and practice the consensus of being partners, “not posing a threat to the other” and “supporting each other for their peaceful development”, so as to ensure long-term peaceful and friendly cooperation.

The author is director-general of the Institute of Japanese Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. 

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.