TOKYO - Japan and China on Thursday marked 50 years since the day they established diplomatic ties, with very little fanfare amid fraught ties and growing distrust between the two superpowers.
Neither Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida nor Chinese President Xi Jinping attended commemorative events held in their capitals, though they exchanged letters that were read out in Tokyo at an event hosted by the Keidanren business lobby.
Mr Xi said he attached “great importance” to bilateral ties and was willing to work together to build relations that “meet the requirements of a new era”.
Mr Kishida said he hoped their countries can overcome the “many issues and challenges” that stand in their way.
“Japan is willing to work with China towards the next 50 years, to jointly promote constructive and stable relations for the peace and prosperity for our countries, the region and the world,” Mr Kishida said.
The leaders upheld the “strategic thinking” and “political foresight” of their predecessors – Chairman Mao Zedong and prime minister Kakuei Tanaka – to open a new chapter in bilateral ties.
On Sept 29, 1972, Japan recognised Beijing as the “sole legal government of China”, thus putting an end to “the abnormal state of affairs” between the two countries, said their joint communique.
The normalisation of ties “will contribute to the relaxation of tension in Asia and peace in the world", it said. “Neither of the two countries should seek hegemony in the Asia-Pacific.”
However, Tokyo believes that is precisely what Beijing is now trying to do, given its assertiveness in the region, while tensions have hardly relaxed in Asia. Japan fears that war will break out in its backyard should China take Taiwan, which it sees as a renegade province, by force.
China, meanwhile, sees Japan as a stooge of the United States due to their security alliance, and warily eyes its attempts to boost its military muscle.
In August, China launched ballistic missiles into waters near Japan’s Okinawa for the first time to protest against a visit by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan.
China, once a recipient of Japanese development aid, overtook Japan in the size of its economy in 2010 and is now challenging the country in innovation and technology.
Japan, wary of intellectual property theft and an over-reliance on China in its supply chains, has enacted economic security laws.
As divisions widen, the leaders are barely talking. Mr Xi and Mr Kishida last spoke in October 2021 in a half-hour congratulatory call just after the latter became PM.
Their foreign ministers have met just once – virtually. China scrapped a meeting in August due to differences over Taiwan.
The semicentennial has, however, given Mr Kishida and Mr Xi impetus to meet this year, possibly on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Bali in November.
All eyes will be on how they manage to smooth over their differences as the souring political atmosphere has spilled over to the man on the street.
An annual think-tank survey in October 2021 found that 90.9 per cent of Japanese people held a negative impression of China, while 66.1 per cent of Chinese had a negative impression of Japan.
Dr Shin Kawashima, who studies Sino-Japan ties at the University of Tokyo, said that the wisdom of the 1972 communique is “not eternal and has an expiry date”.
This was why there were subsequent documents in 1978, 1998 and 2008 to maintain a form of joint understanding, he added.
But things have changed drastically since then, he said. “Bilateral ties have long been based on a separation of politics and economics, but this has become harder with the economic security law.”
Some stardust might well help pave the way for better ties.
Japanese figure skater Yuzuru Hanyu – who is adored in both countries – said at a separate reception on Thursday: “I want Japan and China to build a better relationship because they are neighbours.”
The two-time Olympic champion added that he fondly remembers the “kindness and warmness” he received at the Beijing Winter Games earlier this year.
“Jiayou!” he said, using the Mandarin phrase for "keep going".