China’s Rise: Views from Germany and Japan

Sven Saaler [Profile]

[2012.09.05] Read in: 日本語 | 简体字 | 繁體字 | FRANÇAIS | ESPAÑOL |

The resurgence of China on the international stage has caused concern in Europe and East Asia. While Europe, for the time being, is busy with itself, Japan still seems to have enough leisure to engage in—not always fruitful—quarrels with China, as recent developments have demonstrated.

Unfortunately, not only diplomatic relations between Japan and China have deteriorated. The people of Japan and China are also experiencing an accelerating estrangement. According to the October 2011 government opinion poll on diplomacy (available in Japanese only), 71% of the Japanese do not have any “feelings of sympathy” (親近感, shinkinkan) toward China—i.e., they dislike the country—while only 26% express positive feelings for China. Opinion polls in China surely paint a similar picture of Japan. The perception gap between the two peoples has been constantly widening over the last 10 years.

Ties Going Beyond Emotion

More than actual developments in politics and diplomacy, the main reason for this development is the way these events are reported in the media. However, while small debates about territorial claims to certain rocks are often blown out of proportion, the bigger picture of Sino-Japanese partnership in many areas is often overlooked. While more than 70% of the Japanese express dislike for China, many of those 70% may, knowingly or not, work for a company benefiting massively from the economic growth in China. Without that growth, Japan’s economic performance over the last 10–15 years would have been even worse. Others among the more than 70% stating their dislike for the continental neighbor may frequently do their budget shopping at 100-yen shops stocking countless items manufactured in China. In times of declining incomes (including an 8% salary cut for civil servants passed in March 2012), rising taxes (with hikes slated for both the consumption tax and income tax), rising welfare costs, and increases in the tax burden on families with children, the importance of budget-conscious shopping to low-income families should not be forgotten when discussing Sino-Japanese relations.

Europe and the United States, too—not just Japan—are profiting massively from Chinese economic activity. Without production facilities in China, Apple’s iPhone, for instance, would not easily be available for a large number of people in Europe, the United States, or Japan. The so-called “industrialized countries” are in a process of deindustrialization, shifting their production facilities to China and elsewhere in order to maximize profits. Without doing so, many of those companies would not have survived the recent economic crisis.

The question of China’s future role therefore cannot be determined based exclusively on the diplomatic, strategic, and military considerations brought immediately to mind by China’s rise and the potential “Chinese threat.” The interdependence of the Chinese, European, US, and Japanese economies needs to be given sufficient consideration.

No Need for “Yellow Peril” Fears

Throughout history, China was often perceived, particularly in the West, as a “peril.” Interestingly, it was Japan that at times defended China against these Western scenarios (although not completely selflessly). In 1905, a Japanese diplomat in Europe, Baron Suematsu Kenchō, told a British audience that they did not need to fear China because historically speaking, China was not an aggressive country, notwithstanding its size. Obviously, Suematsu had the intention of diverting fears of a “Yellow Peril” in Europe—given the background of the Russo-Japanese War. But what he said (and later wrote) is still noteworthy, particularly from a contemporary perspective:

“The expansion of China is an important subject in history, but its limit was reached long ago. . . . The area of the original centre of China was very limited, but its sphere of influence and activity gradually spread, generation after generation, as its civilization developed and extended to the surrounding regions. . . . The one peculiarity of this extension is that, roughly speaking, it has not been the result of aggressive conquest. China has always been on the defensive, and it is the surrounding peoples who have always assumed the offensive against her.”(*1)

Eventually, Japan, Germany, and other Western countries will have to find a way to arrange themselves with China, since the country is obviously not going to disappear from the map. Only an integration of China in the international community will lead to Chinese feelings of security; not anti-Chinese slogans and attempts to push China into isolation, or attempts to paint new images of a “Yellow Peril,” which were so high in currency 100 years ago in Europe.

(Originally written in English on August 8, 2012.)

(*1) ^ Baron Suyematsu (Suematsu Kenchō), The Risen Sun, pp. 269–70. London: Archibald Constable & Co., 1905. (The text is available online.)

  • [2012.09.05]

Associate professor of Modern Japanese History at Sophia University in Tokyo and Japan representative of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation. He is author of Politics, Memory and Public Opinion (Iudicium, 2005); co-editor (with J. Victor Koschmann) of Pan-Asianism in Modern Japanese History (Routledge, 2007), The Power of Memory in Modern Japan (with Wolfgang Schwentker; Global Oriental, 2008) and Pan-Asianism: A Documentary History (with Christopher W. A. Szpilman, Rowman & Littlefield, 2011). He is also co-author of Impressions of an Imperial Envoy. Karl von Eisendecher in Meiji Japan (in German and Japanese, 2007) and of Under Eagle Eyes: Lithographs, Drawings and Photographs from the Prussian Expedition to Japan, 1860-61 (in German, Japanese, and English, 2011).

Related articles
Other columns

Video highlights

New series

  • From the editor in chief
  • From our columnists
  • In the news