The 5-Minute Briefing: What's behind the spat between China and Japan?

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The Independent Online

Relations between China and Japan have sunk to their lowest point in 30 years. Why?

Relations between China and Japan have sunk to their lowest point in 30 years. Why?

The immediate cause is Japan's decision to authorise secondary school textbooks that gloss over what China considers its darkest hour: the Japanese Imperial Army's 15-year rampage through the country from 1933 to 1945. The most controversial history textbook, written by neo-nationalist scholars, suggests China was to blame for its own subjugation for rebuffing Japan's attempts to deal with the country "in a spirit of co-operation". References to infamous war crimes, notably Unit 731, a germ-warfare unit that conducted experiments on live prisoners, and the 1937 Nanking massacre, when up to 300,000 civilians were slaughtered, have been removed or played down.

So the Chinese have every right to be angry?

Yes, but there is more. China makes much less fuss about other historical enemies, including the British, who fought two wars to supply opium to the country, or the US, who for years bankrolled the nationalists against the communists. Tokyo believes Beijing is whipping up anti-Japanese sentiment to deny it a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. And hypocrisy looms large: Chinese students learn little of the invasion of Tibet or the crimes of Chairman Mao. In the background, the tectonic plates of Asian politics are shifting to accommodate the growing economic bulk of an increasingly confident and assertive China, which some in Japan view with alarm. The Trade Minister, Shoichi Nakagawa, called China "a scary country".

What's at stake here?

China and Japan are one of the world's most important bilateral trade relationships. Japanese businesses have billions invested in the world's fastest-growing economy, which overtook the US last year to become Japan's biggest trading partner. China needs Japanese capital and know-how and Japanese manufacturers depend on cheap Chinese labour. Hot in economics, cold in politics is the phrase used in Japan, and the hope is that this booming trade will trump the present tensions. But some fear the heady brew of history, nationalism and politics that hangs above relations between these two old enemies like a pall will eventually drag them into further confrontation.

Anything else we should be worried about?

An internet-led boycott of Japanese goods is picking up speed in China, where anti-Japanese feeling is high following decades of patriotic education. And anti-Chinese sentiment is hardening in Japan, which is to terminate aid to China after providing billions of dollars over the past two decades. China is suspicious of the military alliance between America and Japan and is arming itself at a furious rate. And Japanese hawks are pushing for a more assertive role for Tokyo to counter this threat.

David McNeill