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Deng Xiaoping Visits Tokyo, October 1978 and February 1979

Robert Hoppens

Deng Xiaoping visited Tokyo in 1978 and again in 1979. The records of these visits are important for understanding Sino-Japanese relations, the rise of China, and Japan’s role in the Cold War.

isit of Chinese Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping to Johnson Space Center, 1979
Deng Xiaoping in the United States on February 2, 1979. On his return trip to China, Deng stopped over in Japan for a series of meetings with new Japanese Prime Minister Ōhira Masayoshi.

Chinese Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping visited Japan in October 1978 and again in February 1979. The highest-level PRC official to visit Japan to that point, Deng’s historic visits came at a critical juncture in the late Cold War. Deng and the PRC leadership were opening up to the outside world as part of both the emerging Reform and Opening program (officially launched at the Third Plenum in December 1978) and an attempt to build a global anti-Soviet united front (a strategy that would culminate in the PRC invasion of Vietnam in February 1979).

The Japanese leadership, for its part, sought to counter criticism from the United States and other allies of Japanese “free riding” and assuage worries about Japan’s prodigious economic power by utilizing this power to make a more active, and distinctively Japanese, contribution to the international community.

Records obtained from the Diplomatic Archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan in Tokyo, now available in English translation on DigitalArchive.org, reveal the strategic interests that were generally compatible, though certainly not identical, as well as a confluence of economic interests – Japanese support for Chinese economic modernization – between China and Japan. These overlapping strategic and economic interests formed the bedrock of relations between Japan and the PRC for much of the next two decades.

The documents of Deng’s 1978 and 1979 Tokyo visits, therefore, provide important background for understanding the period of friendly Sino-Japanese relations in the 1980s – the “Golden Age” of the postwar relationship – particularly during Japanese Prime Minister Nakasone Yasuhiro’s 1984 visit to China.

The October 1978 Visit

Sources related to Deng’s first visit, in October 1978, include the record of Deng’s talks with Japanese Prime Minister Fukuda Takeo, as well as records of talks between Japanese Foreign Minister Sonoda Sunao and Chinese Foreign Minister Huang Hua.

The purpose of Deng’s visit was ostensibly to exchange instruments of ratification for the new Japan-China peace treaty signed in August 1978. In fact, however, the trip was an opportunity for Deng to recruit the Japanese leadership in a worldwide Chinese struggle against the Soviet Union – a struggle that was coming to a head in Indochina. At the same time, the trip was an opportunity for Deng Xiaoping to study firsthand the remarkable development of the postwar Japanese economy at just the time that Deng was envisioning the transformation of the Chinese economy under the Reform and Opening program.

The importance of the economic program is reflected in Deng’s itinerary. In addition to his talks with Prime Minister Fukuda, Deng also toured a Nippon Steel plant, a Nissan auto plant, met with Japanese industrial and business leaders and the leaders of Japan’s most important industrial and economic organizations like the Federation of Economic Organizations (Keidanren).  Deng’s highly publicized tour, which included a meeting with the Japanese emperor was also an important symbol of a new era of friendly relations.  In many ways, Deng’s trip to Japan was a forerunner to Deng’s more well-known visit to the United States in January 1979, which, in fact, provided the opportunity for Deng’s second visit to Japan.

The Issues

The Peace Treaty

Deng’s visit was ostensibly to celebrate the signing of the Sino-Japanese peace treaty, and both he and Fukuda – after an exchange of pleasantries and cigarettes – praised the importance of the treaty and the new relationship it symbolized. Fukuda began by offering a clear (in Japanese terms) statement of remorse for past Japanese actions in China and proclaimed the peace treaty a cornerstone on which to build a friendly relationship that would contribute to regional and world peace. Deng, for his part, pointed out that the Chinese leadership had always stressed the 2,000-year history of friendship between the two countries, in which the history of Japanese imperialism and invasion amounted to a few unfortunate decades. The 1972 joint communique that had normalized relations had brought a close to this unfortunate period and the new peace treaty was a comprehensive legal and political settlement of the past that established a basis for friendly relations “for generations to come.” Thus, the two leaders expressed an understanding of the past and the meaning of the peace treaty that became the basis for friendly relations in the 1980s.

The Soviet Union

For Deng, the peace treaty also had important strategic implications, especially for relations with the Soviet Union and what the Chinese leader saw as an increasingly worrying situation in Indochina. On this point, the Japanese response to Deng’s strategic concerns was generally sympathetic, though non-committal.

Fukuda stressed Japan’s commitment to peace and determination to never again become a military power as embodied in the postwar Japanese constitution. Without military power, however, Japan depended for its security on the US-Japan alliance and would work for world peace primarily through economic rather than military means. For this purpose, Fukuda reiterated his commitment to what he called an “omni-directional” foreign policy, under which Japan took a non-adversarial approach and sought friendly relations with all countries. On the other hand, Fukuda assured Deng that an omni-directional foreign policy did not necessarily mean an equidistant foreign policy implying greater sympathy for PRC positions in the struggle with the Soviet Union. Since the 1972 normalization of relations, the Japanese government had sought to maintain a policy of equidistance in the dispute between Beijing and Moscow, and had resisted Chinese pressure to oppose what Beijing called Soviet “hegemony” in East Asia. Fukuda’s softening of equidistance, therefore, suggests that as détente broke down in the late 1970s, and lured by the promise of economic opportunity in China, the Japanese leadership was willing to lean closer to the PRC in its competition with the Soviet Union.

Deng welcomed Fukuda’s position but pushed the Japanese side further, seeking to convince the Japanese of the Soviet threat to world peace. The PRC, he insisted, also wanted friendly relations with all countries, including the Soviet Union. The problem was that the Soviet Union was committed to a program of global expansion and aggression. Everyone wants peace, Deng said, except for the Soviets. Around the world, Deng argued, the Soviets were occupying territory and seizing resources in preparation for war. Deng warned against the dangers of appeasement and explained PRC support for the US-Japan security treaty and the Japanese Self-Defense Forces in this context.

Vietnam

The most concerning front in the struggle with the Soviet Union for Deng was in Vietnam. Deng portrayed Vietnam as a Soviet proxy, the “Cuba of the East,” advancing Soviet designs in Southeast Asia. Deng explained that the Vietnamese, in alliance with the Soviet Union, sought to create an Indochinese federation in a bid to control Laos and Cambodia and were hostile toward China because they saw the PRC as an obstacle to this plan. Deng further warned the Japanese that Vietnam was planning an invasion of Cambodia, which he predicted would result in a war even larger than the American war in Vietnam. Deng also displayed considerable pique regarding Vietnamese actions. Deng played up the betrayal and ingratitude of the Vietnamese in their hostility toward China, even though the PRC, itself a poor country, had provided far more aid to the Vietnamese in their war against the US than had the Soviets. Deng expressed his feeling that the Vietnamese had become arrogant since the reunification of the south, bragging that they were the world’s third-greatest military power and seizing the property of ethnic Chinese in Vietnam. 

Chinese Economic Modernization

Fukuda’s remarks to Deng make clear that, in contrast to Deng’s strategic concerns, he saw the value of relations with China largely in economic terms. Fukuda saw relations based on compatible economic interests. The PRC was rich in natural resources, while resource-poor Japan was looking to diversify its sources of raw materials. Japan, for its part, could aid the PRC in the achievement of the Four Modernizations which would contribute to regional and world peace. Fukuda offered heartfelt prayers for the success of the Four Modernizations and told Deng that if there was anything the Japanese could do to help, the Chinese should not hesitate to ask.

Korea

Fukuda did, however, express to Deng his concern about the situation on the Korean peninsula and suggested that Japan and China should cooperate to create an environment conducive to peaceful unification by pushing the two Koreas toward talks. If this was a serious proposition on Fukuda’s part, he found Deng unresponsive. Deng stated that China did not want to interfere in the Korea problem and laid responsibility entirely at the feet of the United States. After the Korean War, Deng explained, Chinese troops left Korea, but US troops did not. He argued that the US should first withdraw its troops from Korea; only then could there be a North-South dialogue.

Taiwan

Deng also took the opportunity to reiterate the PRC position on Taiwan, namely that Taiwan is a domestic Chinese issue and that the PRC cannot rule out the use of force to reunify Taiwan. On the other hand, Deng praised what he called the Japan model for the resolution of the Taiwan issue in bilateral relations. In the 1972 normalization of relations, the Japanese government had broken diplomatic and political relations with the Republic of China, but maintained economic and cultural relations with Taiwan. Deng praised this as a solution that was based on Taiwanese realities and explained that he was pushing the United States to accept the Japan model on Taiwan.

The February 1979 Trip       

Deng’s second trip to Japan came in February 1979 during a brief stopover in Tokyo on his way back to Beijing from his official visit to the United States. His stay on this trip was much shorter (Deng was in Tokyo for less than 48 hours), and was devoted to explaining and defending the decision of Deng and the Chinese leadership in December 1978 to launch an invasion of Vietnam to punish the Vietnamese for their invasion of Cambodia.

Documents related to the stopover visit include records of Deng’s meetings with new Japanese Prime Minister Ōhira Masayoshi, minutes of the foreign ministers’ meetings between Huang Hua and Sonoda Sunao, Deng’s meetings with former Prime Ministers Fukuda Takeo and Tanaka Kakuei, as well as briefings and analysis by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs Asia Bureau.  In Japan, Deng made the same arguments to the Japanese that he had made to President Carter in Washington. In Tokyo, Deng found little enthusiasm for his military plans and resistance to his calls for Japanese aid to Cambodia.

In their meetings with the Japanese, Deng and Huang Hua laid out the established litany of charges against Vietnam. Vietnam was a Soviet catspaw in Southeast Asia, the “Cuba of the East.” Just as American inaction had encouraged Cuban adventurism in Latin America and Africa, appeasement in the face of the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia would lead to Soviet domination of Southeast Asia.  Sounding like an American cold warrior, Deng saw the Soviet hand everywhere, from Southeast Asia through the Indian Ocean to Iran and Africa. The ultimate aim of the Vietnamese, Deng tried to convince the Japanese, was the Strait of Malacca, the “lifeline” of the Japanese economy. Deng emphasized that the Chinese were willing to bear the costs of militarily resisting the Vietnamese but called on Japan to impose sanctions on Vietnam and extend aid to Cambodia.

Prime Minister Ōhira thanked Deng for his report on his trip to Washington and responded fairly blandly that the Japanese government trusted that the PRC would deal with the issue prudently. Ōhira also pointed out that Japan had already suspended economic aid to Vietnam that was to be provided under an agreement signed earlier in 1978. He made resumption of aid dependent on a peaceful resolution of the Cambodia problem.

Deng expressed his understanding of Japan’s position and the suspension of Japanese aid to Vietnam but pushed the Japanese to go further and provide aid to Democratic Cambodia (Democratic Kampuchea). Ōhira again rather vaguely assured Deng that Japan would continue its own efforts to encourage regional peace and stability. Foreign Minister Sonoda struck closer to the heart of the matter when he asked Deng whether aiding Cambodia meant aiding Pol Pot.

In its March 1979 analysis of the Chinese invasion of Vietnam, the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs concluded that the main motivations for the Chinese was to check the rise of a military power on China’s border, to undermine the credibility of the Soviet Union as an ally, to advance an anti-Soviet united front with countries like the US and Japan, and to prove that China was no “paper tiger.” Assessments of who came out on top militarily were inconclusive, but the invasion had done little to aid the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, did not resolve the border disputes between China and Vietnam and in the end had caused the Chinese, who still held a stubborn Sino-centric mentality, to lose face.

The Importance of Deng’s Tokyo Visits

The records of Deng’s visits to Japan are important for understanding the history of Sino-Japanese relations, the early history of the rise of China, and Japan’s international role in the Cold War. They reveal how leaders in Japan and China worked to formulate definitions of national interest, on issues ranging from trade to Taiwan, and national identity, including a shared understanding of history, that could support cooperative, even friendly, relations.

Deng’s visits also testify to the importance of relations with Japan in his thinking about economic reform and the PRC’s opening to the outside world. Though Deng did not garner much Japanese support for China’s strategic competition with the Soviet Union, Japan would remain important as a model and a partner in China’s economic reform for the next two decades.

The importance Deng attached to relations with Japan also reminds us that the late Cold War was a period in which there was great anticipation, along with considerable apprehension, regarding the role that a rising Japan would play in the world. Many Japanese leaders were optimistic that Japan could make not only a more active, but a distinctly Japanese, contribution to international society, one based on economic cooperation rather than military competition and better suited to an era of superpower decline and global interdependence.

These are important aspects of Cold War history that are easily obscured by the subsequent collapse of the Japanese bubble economy, the rise of China, and the current state of seemingly intractable Sino-Japanese enmity.

About the Author

Robert Hoppens

Robert Hoppens

Associate Professor of History at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley
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