The year 2014 marks 120 years since the First Sino–Japanese War. While the two nations have enjoyed several decades of peace, there is an uneasy feeling in China that recent developments and revisions to the Japanese constitution draw parallels with the decade prior to 1894.
In that year, under the pretence of defending their consulate and expatriates, the Japanese government sent troops to the Korean peninsula and invaded China. Four years earlier, in December 1890, the then Japanese prime minister and ‘father’ of Japanese militarism, Aritomo Yamagata, made a policy speech claiming that there were two lines to be guarded if Japan wanted to be capable of self-defence. The first was the ‘sovereignty line’, which traced the border of Japan’s national territory. The second was the ‘interest line’, which referred to any area within which the safety of the sovereignty line was intimately related.
The Korean peninsula was of course the first to be regarded as part of the ‘interest line’ by Japan. Yamagata, an aggressive proponent of this expansionist theory, became commander of the Japanese First Army in 1894, during the administration of Hirobumi Ito. Under his leadership Japanese troops invaded the Korean peninsula up to Pyongyang before marching straight on to Liaodong, China. After the annexation of the Korean peninsula, with the expansion of its so-called sovereignty line, Japan expanded its ‘interest line’ towards northeast China. By the same logic, the Japanese military subsequently created the Mukden Incident in 1931 and the Incident of July 7 in 1937, and launched an all-out invasion in China, leading to a legacy of war crimes.
Today, nearly 70 years since the Second World War and the retreat of Japanese imperialism, similarities have emerged between Sino–Japanese relations now and the relations in the decade before the outbreak of the First Sino–Japanese War. Despite strong public opposition in Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has recently made cabinet resolutions to amend the interpretation of the Japanese constitution to lift the ban on collective self-defence and proceed with amendments to the Self-Defense Forces Law. There have also been discussions with the United States about modifying the Japan–US defence cooperation guidelines and the division of military responsibilities. All of this indicates that Japan has abandoned its ‘special defence’ policy and is paving the way for joint operations with the military forces of the United States and other close allies.
At this stage the scenarios set by the Abe Cabinet that would permit use of military force include those when nations in close relationships with Japan are under attack and those needed to defend the life and liberty of Japanese people. There is an uneasy feeling in China that this expansion of Japan’s conception of its self-defence marks a return to the ‘line of interest’ referred to by Yamagata in 1890. The mood is that these seemingly unwarranted excuses and vague assumptions are being made with the Korean peninsula and China in mind.
Japan will not only be looking to continue strengthening its US alliance but will also include countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam among those nations with which it shares a close relationship. These countries have maritime territorial disputes with China, and placing them in this category would allow Japan to provide them with patrol boats and other such support.
Furthermore, Japan has been strengthening its ties with NATO—signing a new accord this year to increase cooperation. And Abe, on his latest visit to Australia, announced that the two countries would deepen military cooperation. These seeming attempts to form a wider strategy to contain China mark the first time Japan has acted in this way in nearly 70 years since the end of the Second World War.
The Japanese people are beginning to realise that this revision to the Japanese constitution is a violation of the conception of peace set down in that document. Rather than protecting the Japanese people, it is setting up a regional military posture which risks the lives of Japanese soldiers. It is little wonder then that the Abe cabinet’s actions will inevitably be strongly opposed by Japan’s peace-loving people, and cause vigilance and resistance from its Asian neighbours.
Abe is playing a delicate game of international diplomacy. While expressing his willingness to meet with Chinese leaders, Abe is simultaneously launching a diplomatic battle against China. He has shown no sign of repentance after visiting the Yasukuni Shrine late last year. While claiming that the door is always open for dialogues, he refuses to hold dialogues with China on the territorial issue of the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands. Japan appears to be looking forward to the Sino–Japanese summit in November but in fact refuses any communication when it comes to the most urgent issues to be addressed, such as the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands dispute. The Japanese side is fully aware that without formal lines of communication it will be nearly impossible for the Sino–Japanese summit to take place.
One important motive for Japan behaving in this way is to create the impression that it is China that does not act in accordance with international practice, so enabling it to seize the higher ground of public opinion. Yet no matter how elaborate Abe’s plan is, as long as it goes against the current of developing global peace and the will of the Japanese people, it will eventually fail completely. One hundred and twenty years since the outbreak of the First Sino–Japanese War, relations between the two countries are as troubling as ever.
Liu Jiangyong is a Professor and Associate Dean at the Institute of Modern International Relations at Tsinghua University.