The historic enmity between the two countries – now resurfacing in a dispute over sovereignty – threatens stability in East Asia

The large-scale demonstrations that erupted across China on Sunday, in response to activists from Japan landing on disputed islands in the East China Sea, were a fierce reminder that it takes little for the deeply rooted animosity between the two countries to rise to the surface. The islands lie near to Taiwan and not far from the Chinese coastline; they are a long way from the main Japanese islands, but not so far from Okinawa, one of Japan’s southernmost islands. How can such small, uninhabited islands – known by the Japanese as the Senkaku and by the Chinese as the Diaoyu – arouse such anger and passion?

The reason lies deep in history. The islands were for a long time regarded as Chinese, but they were taken by the Japanese – along with Taiwan and much else – following China’s humiliating defeat in the Sino-Japanese war of 1894-5. It marked the beginning of Japanese expansionism in East Asia, with the subsequent colonisation of Korea as well as Taiwan. This reached its zenith after 1931 with the Japanese occupation of north-east China, and from 1937 with the Japanese conquest of further swathes of the country. This expansion was carried out with particular brutality – the Japanese looked down upon other East Asians as their inferior – the most famous example being the barbarity that was displayed in the taking of Nanking. There the Chinese claim more than 300,000 were killed.

It is possible for nations to turn over a new leaf after such atrocities and be accepted afresh by their neighbours. The classic case after the Second World War, of course, was Germany, whose contrition and admission of mea culpa won it a new respect and enabled relations with its neighbours to be put on an entirely new footing. This has never happened in East Asia. The Japanese did eventually offer a grudging and formulaic apology, repeated on various occasions since, but it has never convinced its neighbours – most notably China and Korea – of its sincerity.

As a consequence, Japan has never managed to achieve the kind of political respect in the region which its economic strength would otherwise justify; indeed, it has remained something of an outsider. Japan has not been forgiven and history has not moved on: relations remain stuck in the past, just as might have happened in Europe. The Chinese, more or less en masse, continue to bear huge enmity towards the Japanese.

The most dramatic recent example was in 2005, when there was a wave of demonstrations across China against Japan, fuelled by a variety of issues including the disputed islands, the annual visits by the then Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi to the Yasukuni Shrine, where Class A war criminals are buried, and a new nationalist school textbook in Japan. During that year, China led a successful campaign against Japan’s bid for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, a campaign which garnered the overwhelming support of other East Asian nations, testimony to Japan’s continuing isolation in the region.

The most likely flashpoint that might ignite the simmering resentment between China and Japan concerns the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. Recent history provides vivid illustration. In 2010, Japan arrested the crew of a Chinese fishing boat that rammed a Japanese coastal patrol ship in the vicinity of the islands, an incident which escalated into a major diplomatic stand-off between the two countries. Shintaro Ishihara, the governor of Tokyo and a nationalist whose hostility to China is well known, recently tried to buy the islands from their private owner, a move that evoked strong Chinese opposition. A little more than a week ago, a group of Hong Kong activists occupied the islands in support of the Chinese claim, and then last Sunday the aforementioned group of Japanese demonstrators set foot on the islands to reassert Japanese territorial rights.

The fact that the seabed around the islands is believed to contain rich deposits of oil and gas has added a further dimension to the conflict. The Chinese have suggested that the two countries should engage in joint exploration and development of the seabed around the islands – while postponing the issue of sovereignty until some point in the future – but this has previously been rejected by Japan.

There is little reason to believe that the present pattern of disputes is likely, in the near future at least, to degenerate into something more serious. But the unresolved issues between the two countries represent by far the most serious danger in the region. The dispute is often likened to that over the Spratly and Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, which involves the competing territorial claims of China and various South East Asian countries including Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia. This dispute, too, concerns largely unoccupied islands in seas which are believed to be rich in mineral deposits. But clashes between China and Vietnam or, for that matter, the Philippines, do not carry anything like the same threat as those between China and Japan, because of the incendiary nature of the historical bitterness between the latter. Furthermore, China and Japan possess the second and third largest economies in the world, while the South East Asian contestants are minute in comparison.

The continuing tension between China and Japan invites the question of whether – and under what circumstances – a broader rapprochement between the two countries might be possible. The problem cannot be resolved in any fundamental sense unless Japan shows a new willingness to confront the way it treated its neighbours – especially China and Korea – during the last war. But this will not be easy. Following the Meiji Restoration in 1867 – modern Japan’s founding moment – Japan rejected its Asian neighbours and sought to emulate the West. This has remained an enduring line of continuity through the many twists and turns of its subsequent history, and helps to explain why it treated its neighbours in the manner it did in the last war, and why it is still so isolated in East Asia.

The transformation of East Asia over the past half-century has made this long-established Japanese position increasingly uncomfortable. It is the rise of China, however, that is obliging Japan, albeit with extraordinary reluctance and resistance, to reconsider its place in East Asia. The most dramatic moment in this process came during the brief premiership of Yukio Hatoyama in 2009-10, following the defeat of the ruling Liberal Democratic party. Hatoyama argued in favour of a new turn towards Asia, and especially China, and a recalibrated and somewhat more distant relationship with the United States.

In the event, Hatoyama’s premiership lasted a mere eight months, in political terms not much longer than the cherry blossom. And since then Japan has reverted to its old template, seeking to strengthen its military ties with the United States and in denial about China’s rise. Meanwhile, its virtually stagnant economy is becoming ever more dependent on China’s dynamic growth.

Could the relationship between China and Japan be put on a different and far more positive footing? Apart from Hatoyama there has been little or no evidence of this. But the tectonic plates of East Asia are, with China’s rise over the past three decades and Japan’s impasse of the past two decades, shifting remorselessly. The present state of affairs cannot continue indefinitely.

– Martin Jacques is the author of ‘When China Rules the World: the End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order’