[ISSN 1974-028X]








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N° 59 - NOVEMBRE 2012 (XC)

Assessing the construction of Japan-China diplomatic dialogue
political relations during the Cold War

by Oliviero Frattolillo


During the 1950s, Tokyo and Peking were separated politically and economically because of structural limitations imposed by the bipolar system (Hook, Gilson, Hughes, Dobson 2001, 164). In those years, the positions of both the countries in the international system were well defined: Japan was a U.S. ally, totally dependent on the latter’s foreign strategies; China was a trustworthy friend of the USSR. In attempting to understand Japan-China relations within the Cold War context, one may start with a reinterpretation - from an international perspective - of the history of relations between the two countries, as it has been investigated so far.


It is clear that the orientation towards the “Separation of Politics and Economics” (seikei bunri), inaugurated by Yoshida Shigeru (1948-1954) and continued by Ikeda’s administration, is not simply the result of the constraints imposed by the bipolar system. Japan, embedded within the Western bloc, could never maintain official relations with a Communist country and old friend of the Kremlin. It is important to remember that a long trip undertaken by Yoshida in 1954 brought him to Europe earlier than the U.S.


Few years later, and after two new cabinets, during Kishi Nobusuke’s term (1957-1960), international trade problems inevitably became intertwined with political and strategic issues. Kishi was the best figure the Americans could hope for to lead the Japanese government. The new Premier’s economic vision, his hatred for the Soviets and (unlike Yoshida and Hatoyama) his fear of getting too close to the Chinese - not to mention his love for golf - made him most welcome in Washington to Eisenhower (LaFeber 1997). He was convinced that the rapprochement with Peking was not a priority issue in Japan’s foreign politics, which he felt should focus on (non Communist) Southeast Asia and commit to making its economy more competitive (Takahashi 2000, 178-179). In the late 1950s, therefore, a new international economic era began, characterized by the rapid growth of the Japanese and European poles. This phenomenon took shape in conjunction with the process of decolonization and revealed the emergence of a slow structural change in the previous political-economic dynamics.


The American containment strategy of the 1950s greatly weighed on the evolution of Japan-China relations; the small attempts at rapprochement between China and Japan during the 1950s and  1960s were designed to circumvent the restrictions imposed by the bipolar system by trying to encourage gradual, minor contact between the two countries. But unlike the strong and solid alliances between European countries and the two superpowers, the covenants of the Asian countries with the two blocs were more volatile. One of the countries that can demonstrate how the application of bipolarism changed in some respects in the Far East is China, which went from being an ally of the USSR (then fully inside the Communist bloc) to its antagonist. One can say that during the 1960s, China isolated itself by challenging both of the superpowers and almost creating a “third bloc.” In this regard, it must be pointed out that the Soviets never hid their suspicion that Peking’s real intentions were to induce a confrontation between Moscow and Washington, with the emergence of China as the only power that could benefit from it. China’s changing role during the Cold War should be connected primarily to the deterioration of China-USSR relations. The 1962 Cuban crisis revealed that Peking and Moscow were already ideologically distant from one another.


Unlike China, Japan maintained a clear position within the Western bloc. From the end of WWII, it was able to benefit from enormous military, security, and economic advantages provided by the U.S. The security issues were used by Yoshida as a means to “pursue the economic recovery of Japan and maintain political stability.”


The gradual disengagement of U.S. in Asia, following the defeat in Vietnam – that is an expression of a global trend towards multipolarity - and the emergence of three Communist states in Indochina concurred during the launch of Japan’s ‘new course policy’ in Southeast Asia (Hellmann 1972, 142). Japan’s official renunciation of military ambitions showed the will to contribute to the development of peace and prosperity in the region, as well as its determination not only to be engaged on an economic and political-diplomatic level, but also to build good relationships in social and cultural fields. The first ASEAN Summit, held in Bali on 23 and 24 February 1976, had indicated that it was no longer possible to postpone a new policy for Southeast Asia. Fukuda’s state visits that took place in August 1977 in five ASEAN countries plus Burma demonstrated Japan’s reorientation (Iokibe 2010, 178). For some of those states it was the first official visit made by a Japanese prime minister in the post-war years, the last official occasion of meeting at the intergovernmental level dating back to 5 and 6 November 1943, in the notorious political context of the Dai tō-A kaigi, or “Greater East Asia Conference (also known as the Tokyo Conference”).


Fukuda’s ASEAN diplomacy marked a clear shift in Japan’s Southeast Asia policy: “After his visit to the ASEAN countries in 1977, the word ‘ASEAN’ replaces ‘Southeast Asia’ in Japanese political parlance, and China and ASEAN emerged as two major regional units in Japan’s Asia policy” (Takashi 1997, 185-186). Initially founded on the mere primacy of the economy and, subsequently, on a combination of economics and politics, it marked the high point of the Japanese political and diplomatic strategy.

It was by means of this strategy that Japan was aiming to become the central focus of a large area of economic development and political stability in Asia. At the same time, the Japan-China rapprochement and the normalization of U.S.-China diplomatic relations announced in December of that year formed the cornerstone of a policy aimed at laying the foundations of Japan’s redemption in political terms and resolving the crucial security dilemma. In terms of security, this was the basis of the emerging geopolitical triangulation of Asia Pacific, which included Japan, China and the U.S. (Vogel, Ming, Tanaka 2002). Irreversibly, “their security would now hinge on the stability of that [triadic] structure” (Iriye 1996, 50). No longer potential enemies, Japan and China became part of a new regional structure designed to last until the end of the bipolar era.


In conclusion, the stages that have marked the development of Japan-China relations were deeply influenced by intervening variables that shaped their historical path. It finally appears clear, within the broader context of the Cold War, the manner in which the beiatsu and the structure of the international system have affected the evolution of their diplomatic relations.




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