Mel Gurtov: A political scientist says it may be helpful if China and Japan set history aside in order to get along

Roundup: Talking About History

[Mel Gurtov is Professor of Political Science and International Studies in the Hatfield School of Government, Portland State University, and Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective. His most recent books are Superpower on Crusade: The Bush Doctrine in US Foreign Policy and Global Politics in the Human Interest, both available from Lynne Rienner Publishers ( He may be reached at]

Abstract: The conflict-resolution literature offers new insights to reconciling parties in conflict. This article applies that literature, along with political-science approaches, to the seemingly intractable China-Japan rivalry. Proceeding from the standpoint that China and Japan need one another, and should manage their conflict for mutual benefit, the article suggests several steps they may take—bilaterally, in multilateral settings, and in civil society—to reduce tensions and promote better understanding.

A Framework for Transforming Sino-Japanese Conflict

China-Japan relations constitute a long-running, dangerous, and seemingly intractable conflict. The relations are not immune to positive change, but they are constantly vulnerable to backtracking and intensification of rivalry. Both kinds of changes have occurred since normalization of relations in the early 1970s. The issues in dispute are well known and are therefore not the primary subject of this paper. Instead, the aim here is to explore areas of potential cooperation that may ease tension and eventually lead to reconciliation.

This aim, almost needless to say, is more easily written about than accomplished in fact. Intractable conflicts by their nature acquire a life of their own; the longer they go on, the more vested in conflict do the parties become. In the case of China and Japan, moreover, history envenoms the relationship to an extraordinary degree, infecting both high-level dialogue and public opinion. Official rhetoric about the importance of Sino-Japanese peace and cooperation notwithstanding, in the public arena it is rare to find groups or individuals speaking out on behalf of reconciliation, even when (as in the case of business leaders, for instance) they benefit from it. In fact, influential people in both countries have been attacked for advocating reconciliation. Governments always devote more resources to conflict than to conflict resolution.

Because China-Japan conflict operates at so many levels—it is at once structural, societal, psychological, and of course political—any effort to move it toward reconciliation needs to look at both policies and processes. Moreover, we should be audacious in thinking of reconciliation as involving something more than “simple coexistence.” As David Crocker has written with respect to warring parties, reconciliation is a healing process:

In the most minimal account . . . reconciliation is nothing more than “simple coexistence” in the sense that former enemies comply with the law instead of killing each other. Although this modus vivendi is certainly better than violent conflict, transitional societies . . . should aim for more . . . Among other things, this implies a willingness to hear each other out, to enter into give-and-take about matters of public policy, to build on areas of common concern, and to forge principled compromises with which all can live. The process, so conceived, may help to prevent a society from lapsing back into violence as a way to resolve conflict.[1]

Yet, if transformation of the parties is the ultimate goal of reconciliation,[2] there is a long road to travel when it comes to China and Japan.

This paper contends that to travel that road, the appropriate starting point is not continuing debate over grievances but practical steps that serve common interests. There is a school of thought that argues that until Japan fully acknowledges its past transgressions against China and, like post-war Germany, makes apologies and amends, no progress is possible. But such an approach may add to the problem of conflict resolution. Dealing with the proximate causes of conflict is often more productive than attempting to resolve past grievances. As we have seen many times in the China-Japan case, whenever Japanese politicians reopen the wounds of war, they invite a Chinese response, thus feeding competitive nationalisms and pushing the history issue to center stage—precisely where it should not be.[3] History is better off being shelved until such time as a sense of true partnership emerges—that is, when concerted cooperation occurs over a lengthy period. Only then, when mutual trust is implicit because of habitual dialogue and policies that serve common interests, is reconciliation possible and apologizing politically feasible.

For reconciliation to happen, the tools of both political science and conflict resolution need to be used. Most analysts favor one or more of the three now-standard approaches in political science:

• Liberalism: the role of multilateral regimes and commercial ties in promoting irreversible interdependence;
• Realism: the impact of power differentials and power transitions on policy making;
• Constructivism: addressing issues pertaining to cultural and psychological differences, and the politics of identity (nationalism in particular).

Analyses grounded in political science, however, are insufficient when it comes to reconciling states and societies in conflict. For one thing, they have a strong tendency to fish for trouble: They mainly seek to identify the causes and consequences of conflict rather than focus on preventing, managing, and resolving conflict.[4] For another, they are in sharp disagreement with one another on basic premises. Realist analysis typically sees China-Japan rivalry as an enduring feature of the East Asian strategic landscape, and discounts economic engagement as likely contributing to China’s military as well as economic superiority. Constructivists often point to nationalism and history as being able to overwhelm any common ground Chinese and Japanese diplomats may find. The Liberals’ response—that strong business ties, coupled with China’s deepening involvement in Asian multilateral groups, will diminish rivalry and promote further cooperation with Japan—is appealing but not easily testable. On one hand, business ties have grown in spite of disputes over history and territory; but on the other, those disputes have persisted. Moreover, strong economic relations sometimes create new disagreements of their own, such as over technology transfers, trade imbalances, and development assistance.[5]

If scholars are to contribute to China-Japan reconciliation, as I believe they should, they will need to dig deeper into the tool box and exploit the conflict-resolution literature. Three areas seem particularly pertinent:

• Dialogue: focus on the legitimacy of the parties, the diversity of formats for discussions, and the process of “getting to yes”;
• Engagement: techniques, such as use of positive incentives, for bringing parties to the table or otherwise making contact;
• Confidence building: the use of preventive diplomacy and transparency to build trust.

The vantage point of conflict resolution is its focus on establishing greater trust, widening common ground, and managing differences between disputants. Rivalry is not treated as unalterable, nor is one side to a dispute assumed (for purposes of a settlement) to bear greater responsibility than the other. Approaches to resolving conflicts and reconciliation must take place at several different levels, from the personal to the regional and global.[6] Of central importance, and often neglected, is the domestic political element. In the case of China and Japan, the roles of powerful bureaucracies, parties, and political leaders, as well as of public opinion and civil society, must weigh in any usable approach to conflict management.[7] Of cardinal importance, as stressed below, is the widespread understanding that each leadership and society must come to about the virtues of their mutual dependence, as a source of common prosperity and as a restraint on nationalistic outbursts....

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