Peer reviewed analysis from world leading experts

Sino–Japanese relations 120 years after the war

Reading Time: 5 mins

In Brief

The year 2014 marks 120 years since the First Sino–Japanese War. While the two nations have enjoyed several decades of peace, there is an uneasy feeling in China that recent developments and revisions to the Japanese constitution draw parallels with the decade prior to 1894.


  • A
  • A
  • A


  • A
  • A
  • A

In that year, under the pretence of defending their consulate and expatriates, the Japanese government sent troops to the Korean peninsula and invaded China. Four years earlier, in December 1890, the then Japanese prime minister and ‘father’ of Japanese militarism, Aritomo Yamagata, made a policy speech claiming that there were two lines to be guarded if Japan wanted to be capable of self-defence. The first was the ‘sovereignty line’, which traced the border of Japan’s national territory. The second was the ‘interest line’, which referred to any area within which the safety of the sovereignty line was intimately related.

The Korean peninsula was of course the first to be regarded as part of the ‘interest line’ by Japan. Yamagata, an aggressive proponent of this expansionist theory, became commander of the Japanese First Army in 1894, during the administration of Hirobumi Ito. Under his leadership Japanese troops invaded the Korean peninsula up to Pyongyang before marching straight on to Liaodong, China. After the annexation of the Korean peninsula, with the expansion of its so-called sovereignty line, Japan expanded its ‘interest line’ towards northeast China. By the same logic, the Japanese military subsequently created the Mukden Incident in 1931 and the Incident of July 7 in 1937, and launched an all-out invasion in China, leading to a legacy of war crimes.

Today, nearly 70 years since the Second World War and the retreat of Japanese imperialism, similarities have emerged between Sino–Japanese relations now and the relations in the decade before the outbreak of the First Sino–Japanese War. Despite strong public opposition in Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has recently made cabinet resolutions to amend the interpretation of the Japanese constitution to lift the ban on collective self-defence and proceed with amendments to the Self-Defense Forces Law. There have also been discussions with the United States about modifying the Japan–US defence cooperation guidelines and the division of military responsibilities. All of this indicates that Japan has abandoned its ‘special defence’ policy and is paving the way for joint operations with the military forces of the United States and other close allies.

At this stage the scenarios set by the Abe Cabinet that would permit use of military force include those when nations in close relationships with Japan are under attack and those needed to defend the life and liberty of Japanese people. There is an uneasy feeling in China that this expansion of Japan’s conception of its self-defence marks a return to the ‘line of interest’ referred to by Yamagata in 1890. The mood is that these seemingly unwarranted excuses and vague assumptions are being made with the Korean peninsula and China in mind.

Japan will not only be looking to continue strengthening its US alliance but will also include countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam among those nations with which it shares a close relationship. These countries have maritime territorial disputes with China, and placing them in this category would allow Japan to provide them with patrol boats and other such support.

Furthermore, Japan has been strengthening its ties with NATO—signing a new accord this year to increase cooperation. And Abe, on his latest visit to Australia, announced that the two countries would deepen military cooperation. These seeming attempts to form a wider strategy to contain China mark the first time Japan has acted in this way in nearly 70 years since the end of the Second World War.

The Japanese people are beginning to realise that this revision to the Japanese constitution is a violation of the conception of peace set down in that document. Rather than protecting the Japanese people, it is setting up a regional military posture which risks the lives of Japanese soldiers. It is little wonder then that the Abe cabinet’s actions will inevitably be strongly opposed by Japan’s peace-loving people, and cause vigilance and resistance from its Asian neighbours.

Abe is playing a delicate game of international diplomacy. While expressing his willingness to meet with Chinese leaders, Abe is simultaneously launching a diplomatic battle against China. He has shown no sign of repentance after visiting the Yasukuni Shrine late last year. While claiming that the door is always open for dialogues, he refuses to hold dialogues with China on the territorial issue of the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands. Japan appears to be looking forward to the Sino–Japanese summit in November but in fact refuses any communication when it comes to the most urgent issues to be addressed, such as the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands dispute. The Japanese side is fully aware that without formal lines of communication it will be nearly impossible for the Sino–Japanese summit to take place.

One important motive for Japan behaving in this way is to create the impression that it is China that does not act in accordance with international practice, so enabling it to seize the higher ground of public opinion. Yet no matter how elaborate Abe’s plan is, as long as it goes against the current of developing global peace and the will of the Japanese people, it will eventually fail completely. One hundred and twenty years since the outbreak of the First Sino–Japanese War, relations between the two countries are as troubling as ever.

Liu Jiangyong is a Professor and Associate Dean at the Institute of Modern International Relations at Tsinghua University.

This article appeared in the most recent edition of the East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘A Japan that can say ‘yes’‘.

4 responses to “Sino–Japanese relations 120 years after the war”

  1. Ridiculous comparison. If there is anyone behaving like expansionist Japan it is China. Also comparing Abe to Yamagata is laughable. Yamagata was a statesman and soldier while Abe is politician who thinks he’s a soldier. The former had vision, the latter does not

  2. Whilst I appreciate that Liu Jiangyong’s approach to the topic of China-Japan relations is as a Japan analyst, I think it is important that articles in the EAFQ present a more balanced picture. Many scholars acknowledge that Japan’s early forays into military imperialism – where professor Liu begins his argument – gained considerable impetus from Western imperialism at the time, so I am not so sure that China was the only and central concern of Japan at that time. Furthermore, I find it disappointing that, even allowing for constricted space in the EAFQ, Professor Liu does not even quickly acknowledge the range of reasons that may be behind Japan’s expanding security outlook: a nuclear armed North Korea; growing military aggression by China among its Asian neighbours, especially in the South China Sea; the widening role of the Japan Self Defense Forces in other global conflicts, not least of all the collective self-defense actions of many countries in Afghanistan and Iraq; and, a growing understanding that perhaps the United States may not underpin Japan’s security to the extent that has been thought up to now. So, now as in the 1890s, China may not be the only and central concern of Japan.

    But if professor Liu wants to confine his approach to the issues between China and Japan and describe Japan’s actions as ‘a strategy to contain China’, then it would be even more helpful to acknowledge some detail about China’s actions that are an integral part of the relationship: increasingly hostile actions towards smaller countries in South-east Asia including sinking fishing boats and placing oil rigs in another country’s waters ; the declaration of the Air Defense identification Zone that imposes conditions that no other country demands; and political manipulation of some small South-east Asian countries to prevent any moves at collective backlash against China. Our collective debate about this important regional relationship would benefit from acknowledging the many sides of the argument.

    Dr Robyn Marshall, PhD (East Asian Studies – China), ANU, 2003
    Public servant

  3. I agree with Dr Marshall, this article paints a distorted, simplistic and narrow view of the situation. However, I think it tells us a lot more about the writer and contemporary thinking by Chinese intelligentsia, than it does about the topic. First, the weight of their long history is so ingrained in Chinese intellectuals that anything that happens in the present has to be a repetition of the past, to the point of absurdity, as in this case. Second, it shows how deeply ingrained is the animosity and lack of trust towards Japan by contemporary Chinese, even from someone who has lived and studied in Japan. Finally it just shows how successful the Communist Party of China has been, and continues to be, in indoctrinating propaganda into its academic elite and indeed making them an arm of such propaganda. I personally doubt that the majority of Chinese and Japanese think it is inevitable that their two countries must always be enemies and at war with each other, which is what the writer and the CPC, would want us to believe. This is how wars become self fulfilling!

    • Mr Ingram makes some heroic jumps in logic in his comment. In agreeing with Dr Marshall, I presume he agrees with Dr Marshall’s limp argument that ‘China was not the central or only focus of Japanese imperialism’ (in which case what solace is that for the pillage of the country!) and that there may be a whole range of ‘justifications’ for Japan’s new defence policies (of which China is a sole and primary target) in leaping to the conclusion that Professor Liu and every other thinking soul in the country is totally manipulated by the CCP. Whatever one thinks about Professor Liu’s conception of the history of China’s relationship with Japan, and his judgment that ‘the relationship is now as troubled as ever’ that is all quite a leap, Mr Ingram.

      Benjamin Strong

Support Quality Analysis

The East Asia Forum office is based in Australia and EAF acknowledges the First Peoples of this land — in Canberra the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people — and recognises their continuous connection to culture, community and Country.

Article printed from East Asia Forum (

Copyright ©2024 East Asia Forum. All rights reserved.