Peace through trade? China and Japan

Today the quest for power takes the form of EU, UN or WTO-sanctioned trade embargoes and strengthening military alliances – an advance on the days when the United States forced Japan to open its economy in the nineteenth century by ‘gun-boat diplomacy’.

A contemporary account by Francis Hawkes, based on contemporary naval documents, describes Commodore Matthew Perry of the U.S. Navy steaming into Yokohama bay in 1853 with four warships and firing cannon volleys during a Christian burial service. He requested that Japan open to trade with the West. These ships became known as the kurofune, the Black Ships.


The Japanese book “幕末・明治・大正 回顧八十年史” (Memories for 80 years, Bakumatsu, Meiji, Taisho) 1933-1934 

However, civilised people hope that the marshalling of military support by forming an ‘Asian Nato’, strong enough to intimidate China and North Korea, will be contained and even undermined by the growing confidence in regional trade and investment in that area. 

People hoping for the development of an increasingly peaceful and prosperous world regret media use of the language of competition and strife to describe the economic relationship between China and Japan – including such expressions as “altering the political power balance” and China’s ‘ousting’ of Japan – and are cheered to find that this fails to disturb the countries concerned. 

As such commentators admit, Japan’s pragmatic political, business and academic leadership appears untroubled by the thought: 

“Japan is ageing and the population is declining. So Japan has to rely on China as its source of growth,” says Mitsumaru Kumagai, chief economist at the Tokyo-based Daiwa Institute of Research. China offers customers for Japanese goods and services and labour in sectors ranging from agriculture to clothes manufacturing. 

Mr Akira Kojima from the Japan Center for Economic Research notes that the financial crisis brought home to many Japanese businesses the dangers of being over-reliant on western demand and stresses the complementary nature of the two countries’ industries, the advantage of Japanese companies assembling their products cheaply in China and of itinerant seasonal workers from China helping Japanese farmers to plant and harvest crops. 

In July, Tokyo eased visa restrictions in the hope that Chinese visitors would increase from 1m last year to 1.8m this year. They are expected to spend about Y500bn this year, says Daiwa’s Mr Kumagai. 

For some time beneficial interaction has been growing. Five years ago, Beijing was one of the biggest recipients of overseas development aid from Tokyo, which helped finance the construction of its airports and roads to the present, and the latest example is China’s purchase of Japanese government bonds worth a record net Y1,733bn in the six months to May. 

China and Japan have had alternating periods of peace and war and now, as their economic inter­dependence grows, Japan’s ambassador to China suggests that, rather than quarrel over matters that span 10 to 20 years, the two countries should deepen their mutual understanding “with the thought of maintaining ties for the next 1,000 to 2,000 years”. 

A splendid model for the rest of the world is offered by countries no longer conducting international relations based on short-term competition, rivalry and fear. This approach might bring immediate economic advantage to the major arms exporting countries, but risks loss of life and infrastructure in those countries who stand in the way of those prepared to resort to armed force.

Though well aware of the less admirable stances and deeds of these countries – and our own – we think it’s important to highlight and celebrate news of good aspirations and actions from all quarters.

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