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Debating the Sino-Japanese Normalization, 1972

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Japanese sources inspire discussion on contested legacies of the China-Japan rapprochement.

Debating the Sino-Japanese Normalization, 1972

Japanese sources inspire discussion on contested legacies of the China-Japan rapprochement

The Sino-Japanese normalization of 1972 was a watershed moment for East Asia. The resumption of diplomatic relations between China and Japan papered over the legacies of World War II (at least temporarily); helped bring China out of its self-imposed diplomatic isolation; and contributed to a changing political and strategic dynamic in Asia jump-started months earlier by the US-China rapprochement.

Japanese scholar Yutaka Kanda recently obtained a 150 page collection of records related to the normalization via the equivalent of Japan’s Freedom of Information Act. The collection includes Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai’s conversations with Japanese Prime Minister Tanaka and Takeiri Yoshikatsu (the leader of Japan’s Komeitō), as well as the records of conversation between Foreign Ministers Ohira Masayoshi and Ji Pengfei, which took place on the sidelines of the Zhou-Tanaka talks.

The Cold War International History Project translated these records into English for publication on, and invited several leading experts to evaluate their significance. The brief analyses prepared by this diverse group of scholars—Yutaka Kanda, June Teufel Dreyer, Yinan He, Caroline Rose, and Daqing Yang—explore the immediate significance and lasting legacies, positive and negative, of the 1972 normalization:

The response essays reveal the broad range of issues that the leaders of China and Japan confronted while on the road to normalization in summer and autumn 1972. Kanda, for example, comments on the significance of the Sino-Soviet split in the Sino-Japanese talks, while Yinan He’s essay shows that Taiwan was the “number one” issue.

The documents also capture important elements of Sino-Japanese relations untethered to specific geopolitical issues. As Caroline Rose emphasizes, Chinese and Japanese leaders carefully and deliberately chose their words in order to cultivate trust and friendship with one another and to hasten the normalization process. June Teufel Dreyer, among others in the discussion, similarly highlights the importance of personal ties in Sino-Japanese relations and China’s deft familiarity with Japan’s domestic political situation.

Based on the analyses provided by the scholars, it is clear that Zhou Enlai and Tanaka Kakuei, as well as Foreign Ministers Ohira and Ji, delicately navigated many thorny issues through effective interpersonal communication. In so doing, they laid the foundation for Sino-Japanese relations to develop and remain amicable and productive for years after 1972. The restoration of Sino-Japanese relations and gradual increase in political, cultural, and economic exchanges between the two countries marked a Cold War turning point; it was also essential to China’s economic takeoff in the following decades.

Achievements aside, it is clear that the normalization talks also sowed the seeds for the bitter disputes between China and Japan which mar their relations and contribute to instability and uncertainty in East Asia today.

Most notable, Chinese and Japanese leaders in 1972 gave short shrift to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. When Tanaka asked Zhou Enlai to comment, the latter quipped that “it is not right to discuss this matter now”; the islands dispute, of course, is now one of the most sensitive irritants in Sino-Japanese relations. Similarly, in 1972, China was satisfied with what Yinan He calls only a “vague apology” from Tokyo about its invasion and war against China from 1937-1945. In contrast, in late 2016, China’s Foreign Ministry called on the Japanese government to undertake a “sincere reflection” about its conduct during World War II.

If Zhou and Tanaka could look past history and territory, why have these issues come to poison Sino-Japanese relations in more recent years? The documents lend themselves to several interpretations. Yutaka Kanda suggests that Japan “overestimated the power of legal agreement” and “underestimated the significance of moral and emotional elements” in managing its relations with China in the 1970s. Yinan He, on the other hand, blames both parties for rushing through the normalization process and failing to adequately resolve the “history problem,” territorial disputes, and the issue of Taiwan. Daqing Yang highlights how contradictions between the Japanese sources and China’s claims have exacerbated the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands issue in recent years.

The response essays thus show that the records of the 1972 Sino-Japanese talks are still highly relevant to the political situation in East Asia today.

Unfortunately we still lack a complete picture of the 1972 talks. The Chinese government continues to privilege secrecy and refuses to fully or openly account for its diplomatic record. In an effort to restrict open dialogue about Sino-Japanese relations, it has declassified and published only an excerpt of one single record stemming from the 1972 talks.

If China wants the international community to take its perspectives on Sino-Japanese relations more seriously, releasing its own records from the 1972 normalization talks would be a good place to start. Doing so would facilitate a more comprehensive and possibly even-handed dialogue about Sino-Japanese relations, past and present.

Until then, the Japanese documents published here are the closest source we have to this important event, and it is these sources which will color the discussion and dictate the parameters of the debate going forward.

Click here to be redirected to the to view the records of conversation between Chinese and Japanese leaders in 1972.

About the Author

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Charles Kraus

Deputy Director, History and Public Policy Program

Charles Kraus is the Deputy Director of the History and Public Policy Program at the Wilson Center.

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History and Public Policy Program

The History and Public Policy Program makes public the primary source record of 20th and 21st century international history from repositories around the world, facilitates scholarship based on those records, and uses these materials to provide context for classroom, public, and policy debates on global affairs.  Read more

Cold War International History Project

The Cold War International History Project supports the full and prompt release of historical materials by governments on all sides of the Cold War. Through an award winning Digital Archive, the Project allows scholars, journalists, students, and the interested public to reassess the Cold War and its many contemporary legacies. It is part of the Wilson Center's History and Public Policy Program.  Read more