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China, Japan tensions won’t end at APEC

Analysts say China's Communist Party will continue to recall its wartime triumph over the Japanese to justify its rule

China’s ruling Communist Party will continue to stoke tensions with Japan to justify its political mandate and distract from domestic unrest, analysts say, despite predictions that an unusual meeting between the two nations’ leaders at an economic conference marks a turning point in relations.

During the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Beijing on Monday, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe “agreed to disagree” on simmering historical and territorial disputes that in recent years have incensed many Chinese and Japanese nationals, said Wan Ming, a Chinese politics professor at George Mason University who specializes in Sino-Japanese relations.

The meeting resulted in a “four-point agreement on ties,” in which Beijing and Tokyo agreed to “build mutual trust.” The two countries vowed to avoid political stalemates over Japan’s wartime legacy of occupying China and the nations’ dispute over a series of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea — known in Chinese as the Diaoyu Islands and in Japan as the Senkakus.

But some say it's too soon to bid farewell to the anti-Japanese sentiment that has in recent years provoked attacks on Japanese businesses in China’s big cities.

Memory of the early Chinese Communist army's triumph over the Japanese “serves as a major foundation of the Party's legitimacy from the very beginning of the People's Republic,” said Zhu Zhiqun, director of the China Institute at Bucknell University.

China was in a politically and logistically complicated war with Japan from 1937 until the Japanese surrender in 1945 that ended World War II. During the struggle, Mao Zedong led the Chinese Communist army in an ambitious guerrilla campaign against the Japanese in occupied northern China.

“The Party continues to claim that only the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) was able to defeat Western and Japanese imperialists as well as the corrupt [erstwhile Nationalist Party-led government], to end the ‘Century of Humiliation’ and to establish a unified new China,” said Zhu.

In fact, both Japan and China have been known to invest public resources into twisting or exploiting history to push their political agendas.

While a museum that sits beside Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, which commemorates 14 Class-A war criminals, lauds the efforts of the Japanese military in “liberating” Asia from Western imperialists, Japan may have actually orchestrated the systematic rape and murder of millions of people, according to some historians.

Meanwhile, a museum at Beijing’s Marco Polo Bridge was constructed to commemorate Chinese killed at the hands of Japanese, but critics say it more prominently glorifies the role of the Chinese Community army defending China and lends credibility to the party.

China’s nationalists, growing in numbers as the nation’s economy expands, are appeased when China takes a tough stance on Japan, Zhu said. The same is true in Japan.

Abe on Dec. 26 visited Yasukuni Shrine, enraging Chinese nationals — as well as Koreans, Filipinos and others still coping with the legacy of Japan’s brutal wartime expansionist effort. The visit was said to appease his conservative, nationalist Liberal Democratic Party.

“They want him to stand up to the Chinese on territorial issues and visit Yasukuni,” said Jennifer Lind, a Dartmouth political science professor specializing in Japanese affairs. Immediately after the visit, Abe’s approval ratings surged. “He clearly benefited from going,” Lind added.

But it’s a balancing act between provoking anti-Japanese and -Chinese sentiments that both Xi and Abe fear will trump paramount economic interests. China is, according to the International Monetary Fund, the world’s largest economy, and Japan its third – behind the United States.

Both sides are aware of the underlying economic interests. Trade between China and Japan amounted to $312 billion in 2013, according to Japanese government statistics. China is Japan's largest source of imports.

“Every year, something riles the two sides, talk of war ensues, but the massive quantity of trade between the two sides continues — and that’s the key here,” said Josh Fogel, a history professor specializing in Sino-Japanese relations at Toronto’s York University.

The fact that the meeting came now may have good auspices for the Xi administration. Despite some unrest over pollution and among China’s ethnic minorities, analysts say, Xi’s meeting with Abe indicates that Beijing is confidant enough — for the time being — to not need anti-Japanese sentiment to galvanize support for its rule. 

Xi was tasked by Communist Party elders with uprooting widespread corruption at all ranks of the nation’s leadership — corruption that independent economist Andy Xie Guozhong has told Al Jazeera is costing China 10 percent of its gross domestic product annually.

“Clearly, the anti-corruption campaign has generated a lot of positive results and fed into people’s feelings,” said Dong Qingwen, a Chinese media analyst and professor at University of the Pacific.

“Timing is everything — both China and Japan are in good economic [stead] and have decently managed social issues," Dong added. "The timing has generated a good opportunity for both sides to start some dialogue.”  

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