H-Diplo Roundtable XXII-20 on Buzan and Goh, Rethinking Sino-Japanese Alienation: History Problems and Historical Opportunities

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H-Diplo Roundtable XXII-20

Barry Buzan and Evelyn Goh.  Rethinking Sino-Japanese Alienation:  History Problems and Historical OpportunitiesOxford:  Oxford University Press, 2020.  ISBN:  9780198851387 (hardcover, $99.00).

11 January 2021 | https://hdiplo.org/to/RT22-20
Editor:  Diane Labrosse | Commissioning Editor: Masami Kimura | Production Editor: George Fujii


Introduction by Daqing Yang, The George Washington University. 2

Review by Shin Kawashima, University of Tokyo. 6

Review by Amy King, Australian National University. 10

Review by Seo-Hyun Park, Lafayette College. 13

Response by Barry Buzan, London School of Economics, and Evelyn Goh, The Australian National University. 16



When meeting a group of politicians from Japan in 1955, Premier Zhou Enlai of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) made a plea for both countries to move beyond the recent history of conflict:

The history of the past sixty years of Sino-Japanese relations was not good.  However, it is a thing of the past, and we must turn it into a thing of the past.  This is because friendship exists between the peoples of China and Japan.  Compared to the history of a few thousand years, the history of sixty years is not worth bringing up.  Our times have been unfortunate, because we have only been living in these sixty years.  However, our ancestors weren’t like this. Moreover, we cannot let such history influence our children and grandchildren.[1]

Zhou’s words seemed to have produced some effect, if not immediately.  After Japan “normalized” diplomatic relations with the PRC in 1971 after severing formal ties with the Republic of China on Taiwan, Beijing and Tokyo moved into an ever closer relationship as “tacit allies.” By the mid-1980s a book published in the West even predicted the formation of a “Sino-Japanese axis.”[2] A skeptical reviewer of the book rejected the “axis” metaphor, noting that “the legacy of the past” was one of the many factors that “will set limits on this relationship, important as it is.”[3]

Much has changed since then, with the prediction of an axis all but forgotten.  The common adversary, the Soviet Union, is long gone.  China has overtaken Japan to be the second largest economy in the world.  Despite their strong economic ties, since the beginning of the new millennium the two countries have witnessed a precipitous rise of tensions and antagonism between them, at both state and societal levels, This phenomenon, described as “Sino-Japanese alienation” by Barry Buzan and Evelyn Goh, has solicited numerous explanations ranging from power transition and external actors to domestic politics and generation change in each country. Unlike most fellow political scientists and IR scholars, Buzan and Goh locate a key factor in the history problem— either the cultivation of negative historical memories, or the denial or avoidance of historical responsibilities.

Theirs is certainly not the first in-depth study of the “history problem” between China and Japan.  Several monographs and numerous articles have been published on this subject.  Most accounts (including one by this author) have described the rise of the history problem and its specific manifestations in textbooks, museum exhibitions, or elite perceptions, to name a few; others have gone further to probe structural causes or make comparison with other bilateral relations.  A few have offered remedies and prospects for deep or thick reconciliation.  [4]

Still others suggest a different way of looking at history.  Also published in 2020, Ezra Vogel’s 600-magisterial book China and Japan: Facing History is the leading example.[5] A sociologist by training, Vogel is highly respected for his work on both contemporary Japan and China over the past six decades.  Calling himself a friend to both countries, he offers a sweeping survey of what he calls the “second most important bilateral relations in the world” from the onset of their interactions.[6] Emphasizing the fact that both Japan and China learned from each other at different times, Vogel calls for mutual respect of each other’s identity and history as a way to overcome the growing antagonism between two close neighbors.

A welcome addition to this expanding field, Rethinking Sino-Japanese Alienation is a thought-provoking study with a strong normative approach combined with reinterpretations of history.  Highly respected for their works on international relations and Asian politics, Buzan and Goh are well-qualified to address such a perplexing issue.  The author of a seminal article on Japan’s past and its international role published in 1988,[7] Buzan was among the first Western scholars of international affairs to address the perception of history with its national and international implications for Japan.  In this current book, Buzan and Goh regard perceptions of history as having both “intrinsic and instrumental dynamics…[which have worked] in a mutually reinforcing loop since the end of the Cold War” (192). Taking a long-term view of what they consider strategic bargains between China and Japan in the early modern era (fifteenth-nineteenth centuries) and complicating their modern interactions beyond simple dichotomies such as aggressor and victim,[8] they propose a Great Power Bargain (GPB) based on a new conception of history.

What follow are the evaluations of their collective effort by three scholars with deep knowledge of the history of modern China-Japan relations, followed by a response from the co-authors.

Amy King has studied the role of Japanese informal empire in China in shaping their early postwar economic relations.  Praising the book’s usual structure and approach to the history problem, King helpfully situates the book in the recent IR literature.  She succinctly summarizes the book’s main contributions to both scholarship and policy, especially its adjudicating Northeast Asia’s shared modern history and carefully constructing future scenarios based on constitutive and/or regulative bargains.  Anticipating possible criticism of the book’s application of the GPB framework to pre-nineteenth century East Asia, King defends such a historical comparison on the ground that it highlights the Sino-centric orders were “forgiving of some ambiguity” about roles and status thus ensuring a long peace until the arrival of the West-imposed order after 1800.

Seo-Hyun Park has written on sovereignty and status in East Asian international relations from the nineteenth century on.  Park agrees with the book’s reframing of history beyond intra-regional victimhood to underscore parallels among China and Japan (and Korea) from a global historical perspective.  While she believes in the usefulness of a shared regional understanding of the significance of the shared regional experience during the nineteenth century, she seems less convinced, however, that GPB is a prerequisite for building a sustainable regional order and calls for clarification of the membership and scope of a future Northeast Asian GPB.

Kawashima Shin is a leading academic voice and policy commentator in Japan on contemporary China (and Taiwan).  He, too, sees merit in extending the spatial and temporal scope of examining “history problems,” although he casts doubt whether the latter constitute the primary cause of their alienation.  Unlike the two political scientists, Kawashima is more interested in the emergence of the history problem and questions whether it is really such a recent phenomenon between China and Japan.  A close observer of the recent up-and-downs in their bilateral relations, he underscores its tenacity of the problem and sees little likelihood for China in particular to embrace a GPB with Japan.

In their response, Buzan and Goh not only answer the questions and critiques from the reviewers but  also offer useful updates to address the development in the region and beyond since their book went to press. The history problem between China and Japan no longer occupies the headlines as it once did in the early 2000s, but the “alienation” has not gone away.  The foreign policy of the Trump Administration no doubt casts a long shadow over the relations between China, America’s new chief adversary, and Japan, its foremost regional ally. 

Just as Premier Zhou Enlai’s proposal to rethink the history of Sino-Japanese relations failed to achieve a diplomatic breakthrough until a decade later, the prospect for a Sino-Japanese GPB is not promising.  Regardless, as self-conscious ‘outsiders’ to these major protagonists, Buzan and Goh offer fresh perspectives that hopefully will lead to rethinking on the part of scholars and policymakers in the U.S., the country that has played the most important role in shaping Sino-Japanese relations since the mid-twentieth century.


Barry Buzan is a Fellow of the British Academy, Emeritus Professor in the LSE Department of International Relations and a Senior Fellow at LSE IDEAS.  He was formerly Montague Burton professor in the Department of International Relations, LSE.  Among his books are, with Richard Little, International Systems in World History (Oxford University Press, 2000); with Ole Wæver, Regions and Powers (Cambridge University Press, 2003); From International to World Society?  (Cambridge University Press, 2004); with Lene Hansen, The Evolution of International Security Studies (Cambridge University Press, 2009); An Introduction to the English School of International Relations (Polity, 2014); and, with George Lawson, The Global Transformation: History, Modernity and International Relations (Cambridge University Press, 2015).  Among his articles is a trilogy of pieces in the Chinese Journal of International Politics exploring the possibilities for China’s ‘peaceful rise.’

Evelyn Goh is the Shedden Professor of Strategic Policy Studies at the Australian National University, where she is also the Director of Research in the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre.  She has published widely on the international relations and security of East Asia, including “Great Powers and Hierarchical Order in Southeast Asia: Analyzing Regional Security Strategies,” International Security 32:3 (Winter 2007/2008):113-57; Constructing the US Rapprochement with China, 1961-1974 (Cambridge University Press, 2004); and Rising China’s Influence in Developing Asia (Oxford University Press, 2016).  She is the co-managing editor of the Cambridge Studies in International Relations book series (with Nicholas Wheeler and Chris Reus-Smit).

Daqing Yang teaches Modern Japanese History at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C., USA.  Born in China, he received his Ph.D. from Harvard University.  He is the author of Technology of Empire: Telecommunications and Japanese Expansion in Asia, 1883-1945 (Harvard University Asia Center, 2011) and co-edited Toward a History beyond Borders: Contentious Issues in Sino-Japanese Relations (2012).  He is currently working on a book examining early postwar China-Japan relations.

Shin Kawashima is a Professor in the Department of International Relations in the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Tokyo.  He was educated at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies (B.A., 1992) and the University of Tokyo (Oriental History, M.A., 1994 and Ph. D., 2000).  He taught at Hokkaido University's Department of Politics in the Faculty of Law from 1998-2006 before moving to the University of Tokyo in 2006.  He is also an advisory member of the Committee for the Promotion of the Declassification of Diplomatic Records at the Ministry Foreign Affairs.  He has been involved in education and research at the Institute of Modern History, Academia Sinica (Taipei), Beijing Center for Japanese Studies, Peking University, National Chengchi University (Taipei), and Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.  He has studied Chinese/Taiwanese diplomatic history based on Chinese diplomatic archives and has recently started a study of contemporary international relations in East Asia.  His first book, Formation of Chinese Modern Diplomacy (Nagoya University Press, 2004), was awarded the Suntory Academic Prize in 2004.  He has co-authored and edited volumes such as, Groping for A Modern State: 1894-1925 (Iwanami Shoten, Publishers, 2010), China in the 21st Century (Chuo-koron Shinsha, 2016), Frontier of China (Iwanami Shoten, Publishers, 2017), and Japan-China Relations in the Modern Era (Routledge, 2017).

Amy King is a Senior Lecturer and Australian Research Council DECRA Fellow at the Australian National University.  Her research focuses on China-Japan relations, China and international order, and the role and history of ideas in International Relations.  She is the author of China-Japan Relations after World War Two: Empire, Industry and War, 1949-1965 (Cambridge University Press, 2016).  She is now writing a second book on how Chinese ideas shaped the changing international economic order in the 1940s and 1950s. 

Seo-Hyun Park is an Associate Professor in the Department of Government and Law at Lafayette College.  Her primary areas of research are international relations and East Asian security, focusing on issues of national identity politics, state sovereignty and state-building, alliance politics, regionalism, and historical influences on contemporary international relations.  She is the author of Sovereignty and Status in East Asian International Relations (Cambridge University Press, 2017).  Her work has also appeared in peer-reviewed journals, such as the Review of International Studies, International Relations, Journal of East Asian Studies, Strategic Studies Quarterly, and Chinese Journal of International Politics, and in media outlets such as The Washington Post.  Her current research project is on the diffusion of different forms of political violence and military competition in late nineteenth century East Asian international relations.



“Invented History and Interpretations”

Translation by George Remisovsky, Yale University and University of Tokyo


Rethinking Sino-Japanese Alienation is an examination of the “history problem” in Sino-Japanese relations through the lens of international relations theory.  East Asian historians have debated the issue of historical awareness for quite some time now.  In light of its impact both on domestic politics and on the practice of international relations, however, social scientists can add much to the conversation.  This review will discuss the book’s overall aims and several of its primary arguments.

First, in its endeavor to survey the issue of Sino-Japanese historical awareness across some 600 years of history, this book takes a similar approach to Ezra Vogel’s China and Japan: Facing History.[9] This is meant to contrast the idea that the root of bilateral problems can be found by merely focusing on the events that took place over two decades within the first half of the twentieth century.  The question remains, however, as to whether the ‘history problem’ itself was formed during the recent past or in some time prior.  To authors Barry Buzan and Evelyn Goh, ‘history problems’ emerge when the ways in which nation states “use and abuse their history to construct their identities, legitimize their domestic politics, ‘learn lessons,’ and justify their foreign policies” intersect similar efforts by neighboring states “in ways that are mutually disturbing and breed hostility” (1).  They thus define it as “either the cultivation of negative historical memories, or the denial or avoidance of historical responsibilities, used to condition both political and public attitudes towards contemporary policies and relationships in ways that encourage tension.” (4) By overcoming the Sino-Japanese ‘history problem,’ which they argue “both exerts a normative impact and has been used instrumentally in a wider process of socio-normative contestation and bargaining” the authors hope that a “great power bargain” of “strategic exchange and interdependence” between the two can be reached for the first time since the mid-nineteenth century (5).

An important question however, is the history of how the ‘history problem’ itself came into existence. Buzan and Goh draw parallels between Japan in the 1930s and China in the 1980s and see the current ‘history problem’ as emerging from a combination of the structural challenges facing each power’s rise as an emergent power and shared cultural traits that “provide the foundations for the mutual antagonism of a narcissism of small differences” (50).  But while the authors rely on contemporary analyses to argue that history issues were “put to one side by China’s government” until the mid-1980s, evidence suggests that similar conflicts over historical interpretation began taking place long before then (58).  For instance, 1910 saw the first dispute between Japan and China over textbook publication.[10] As the authors note, nationalism is “part of the package of modernity from the beginning” (32).  The creation of national historical narratives as part of the modern state-building process can, in itself, lead to the creation of a negative image of the other.  And the contours of this negative image can change over time.  Recently, some scholars in China have extended their accounting of the length of the Second Sino-Japanese War from eight to fourteen years.  Others have proposed that the period of direct Sino-Japanese confrontation began with the First Sino-Japanese War in 1894 or that it even dates back to the beginning of the Meiji Restoration.[11] Of course, a ‘tale of friendship’ also exists alongside this that includes the stories of Chinese exchange students in Japan and Japanese support for the Republic of China’s founding president Sun Yat-sen’s revolutionary activities.  This, however, is solely aimed at bolstering the People’s Republic of China’s theory that there was a “duality between the army and people” of Japan, such that “the Japanese government and military were enemies, but the Japanese people were friends.”[12] One wonders how this split image impacts how we might evaluate the challenges posed by the Sino-Japanese ‘history problem.’

Second, as the authors note, discussions about the Sino-Japanese ‘history problem’ have tended to take place either within the bilateral context of Sino-Japanese relations or within the regional context of East Asia as a whole.  This has likely led many observers from outside the region to view historical debates as taking place inside a ‘closed’ space for discussion.  The authors thus offer important advice on how to open this issue to a broader global conversation.  However, not only have a number of Japan-China Joint History Research Reports already been translated into English, but the United States and other countries have also taken part in creating long-term multilateral projects related to joint Sino-Japanese research.[13] For instance, Toward a History Beyond Borders: Contentious Issues in Sino-Japanese Relations, edited by Daqing Yang, Jie Liu, Hiroshi Mitani, and Andrew Gordon, was published as the result of a project funded by the Sasakawa Japan-China Friendship Fund.[14] I have personally benefitted from participating in these sorts of extra-regional initiatives, including other collaborative research endeavors and participation in programs at the Salzburg Global Seminar. They allow for a more comprehensive view of problems related to historical awareness and are a chance to learn about global standards for discussing them.  A key message for both Chinese and Japanese interlocutors is that we should, for the sake of both the present and future, extend the spatial and temporal dimensions with which we examine ‘history problems,’ thus giving us a chance to develop novel understandings of them.

It is not enough merely to think more broadly and over longer spans of time, nor is it the case that doing so has never been attempted before.  Even with the aid of viewing the issues within wider contexts, several obstacles likely stand in the way of further unraveling ‘history problems.’ We must therefore also consider a few other related points.

We must first think about the reasons why attempts at multiple forms of ‘reconciliation’ both within East Asia and bilaterally between Japan and China have heretofore been unsuccessful.  One example is the 1995 Murayama Statement, which was a clear statement of apology issued by the Japanese government.  It came directly after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, when the Jiang Zemin regime was in the midst of reconstructing China’s single-party Communist dictatorship; there was subsequently no response to the Statement from the Chinese government.  At the start of the twenty-first century, Chinese intellectuals proposed “new thinking” on relations with Japan, but the government of Junichirō Koizumi failed to issue any particular response to them.  Alongside his repeated visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, his lack of a response stalled subsequent efforts to reach any sort of reconciliation.  There had also emerged a growing conversation over a number of unresolved issues related to Japan’s war with China.  When Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visited Japan and gave a speech to the National Diet on April 12th, 2007, he offered praise to both the Murayama Statement and the 2005 Koizumi Statement.  But Japan at the time was host to a succession of short-term governments that generally lasted for no longer than a year.  This meant that large historical questions had to remain unresolved for the time being.  Both China and Japan have thus attempted, unsuccessfully, to approach the other for compromise, but each one did so out of sync with the other.  There has not been a lack of opportunities to reach some form of reconciliation, but the ability for both sides to come to a compromise at the same time has remained elusive.  Both sides have been able to see past what Buzan and Goh have called the “blockage” of a “strong focus on the short period of the 1930s and 40s,” but their ability to do so requires the emergence of matching domestic political circumstances in both China and Japan (295).

Within East Asia, the ‘history problem’ is also intricately tied to relations with South Korea and Taiwan.  There had been talk of cooperation between South Korea and China over the issues of comfort women and forced labor, but there has recently emerged a difference of opinion between the two parties over the form that transitional justice might take.  Greater similarities, however, have emerged between the South Korean and Taiwanese approaches.  The history of the years that serve as the primary focal point of these discussions—the wartime decades of the 1930s and 1940s—have also been used to form closer relations between the Kuomintang (KMT) and the Communist Party of China (CPC).  The Xi Jinping regime has largely abandoned the use of the war’s history as part of President Xi’s unification strategy, but the Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao regimes often used that history to tie the KMT and CPC closer together.  Xi’s regime has ended any subsequent joint research because it has criticized some histories of China’s Republican Period as being guilty of historical nihilism.  A number of Japanese researchers also took part in this joint KMT-CPC research, though China’s more recent turn towards party history has led to a precipitous drop in opportunities for dialogue[15].  These connections between historical policies, domestic historical awareness, national legitimacy, and the character of each country’s government not only extend across East Asia, but they are also constantly changing.

Next, how were historical questions dealt with during the “honeymoon” period of Sino-Japanese relations in the 1980s?  Of course, a number of politicians from that era had been directly involved in the war, meaning that Japan’s leaders were seeking atonement for the war.  At the same time, however, there was also a succession of incidents involving offhand remarks by individual politicians.  Japan had leverage in its bilateral relationship with China in terms of its ability to offer economic cooperation, but paramount leader Deng Xiaoping also worked to ensure that memories of the war would not fade away among younger generations.  As a result, while he was deepening China’s economic relationship with Japan during the 1980s, Deng also ordered the construction of the Museum of the War of Chinese People’s Resistance Against Japanese Aggression next to the Marco Polo Bridge and the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall.  The prospect of continued economic cooperation was thought to have helped calm down the debate over historical issues, but after the 1990s, the overall importance of Japan’s economic cooperation with China decreased, leading to a resurgence of clashes over history.

From the 1990s through the present, Japan’s legal system has also played an important role in historical disputes, as China has repeatedly sought civil compensation for damages incurred by the war.  The Chinese government renounced its ability to seek reparations from the Japanese government as part of the 1972 Japan-China Joint Communiqué, but the Supreme Court of Japan originally interpreted the Joint Communiqué as not having any impact on the ability of individuals to seek compensation.  After 2005, however, the Supreme Court revised its opinion to state that the agreement had also preempted the ability for individuals to seek compensation.  While the authors take pains to separate historical governments of China and Japan—such as in Chapter 6’s comparison between the Ming Dynasty’s relations with the Ashikaga Shogunate and its contacts with the later Tokugawa Shogunate—it is also important to analyze the separate roles that different institutions within each state can play in overall relations.

Finally, I would like to briefly discuss the links between ‘history problems’ and international relations more broadly.  On May 8th, 2020, Chinese media outlets issued propaganda related to “historical facts” that it declared to have been part of the country’s “national humiliation.”[16] This was referring to bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade on that same date in 1999.  Xi Jinping visited the original site of the embassy and laid flowers there in 2016, but with increasing confrontation between the United States and China, such Sino-American historical events have begun to take on even greater importance.  We are left wondering whether historical problems will serve as an obstacle for China’s foreign affairs or in some way negatively impact China’s peaceful rise, or if the problems themselves arise merely in response to the worsening of foreign relations.  It may be that in some cases, such as with Prime Minister Junichirō Koizumi’s visits to the Yasukuni Shrine at the turn of this century, ‘history problems’ are the cause of worsening relations.  In many instances, however, the problems themselves become more acute because relations have first worsened due to other factors.  Sino-Japanese relations have taken a sudden turn for the better since 2017, but this has not been due to the ‘resolution’ of any outstanding historical or territorial disputes.  And once the signal was issued for an ‘improvement’ in relations, the Chinese government subsequently issued few statements regarding historical issues on the diplomatic stage.  In short, one can see how relations between countries can improve without the need for “historical” factors to serve as their primary motivation.  The Sino-Japanese ‘history problem’ is not necessarily the primary obstacle for both countries to reach a “common understanding about the legitimate rights and duties” associated with great powers (142).



Barry Buzan and Evelyn Goh have produced an extraordinary book, in all senses of the word.  It is impressive, epic, and unusual.  The book springs from an avowedly normative agenda, which is to ask how China and Japan might move beyond the mutual alienation of their present relationship.  Buzan and Goh see the narrowly defined ‘history problem,’ which dominates both real-world politics and scholarly analysis, as central to this alienation.  Consequently, they take up their normative challenge by situating the China-Japan relationship in two alternative historical accounts.  The first of these accounts reframes the ‘history problem’ as China and Japan’s dual, shared encounter with the West and the global idea set of modernity in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  In so doing, they demonstrate the shared responsibility of China, Japan, and the West for the good and bad parts of their modern history.  The second historical account shows that at key junctures between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries, China and Japan negotiated great power bargains enabling relatively peaceable relations.  The authors thus make clear that, under certain conditions, it has been possible for China and Japan to peaceably coexist in the past, and it may therefore be possible for them to do so again.

The book’s size, and its admittedly unusual structure, stem in part from the authors’ decision to explore these two alternative readings of Sino-Japanese history, either of which might have filled an entire book in itself.  But its unusual structure also stems from the fact that the book is first and foremost situated in International Relations (IR), not history; Buzan and Goh seek to adjudicate Northeast Asia’s history along normative lines, and to draw upon history as a way to examine the creation and erosion of great power bargains between China and Japan. At times, this means that the book’s various parts do not hang together as well as they might.  Yet, ultimately, Buzan and Goh’s book makes a major contribution to scholars’ understanding of the forces that have produced Sino-Japanese alienation and, even more importantly, the authors use this analysis to offer tangible pathways for overcoming that alienation.

Throughout the book, the Buzan and Goh use and conceive of history (and memory) in a range of different ways.  First, they widen, lengthen, and adopt a comparative, historical lens in order to highlight the considerable parallels in China and Japan’s modern rise to power. Some of these comparisons are occasionally problematic; comparing Meiji-era Japan with China under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping (1978-1992) overlooks the birth of modernisation and nationalism in Republican-era China, for instance.  But on the whole, this alternative lens reveals that China and Japan have so often viewed one other as reference points in navigating their encounters with the West and modernity. Moreover, this lens shows that the contemporary ‘history problem’ is not immutable, but rather a phenomenon that has been constructed on the basis of a narrow, partial reading of history. Yet Buzan and Goh do not relegate historical memory to being an instrumental political construct alone.  Rather, the authors make clear that they see historical memory as having both “intrinsic and instrumental dynamics…[which have worked] in a mutually reinforcing loop since the end of the Cold War” (192). This conception of history and memory aligns with broader approaches to the study of ‘ideas’ in IR, and the claim that the instrumental deployment of ideas works best when they can be hooked to ideas that are deeply felt within a society.[17]

Second, the authors directly connect international order and history, drawing on their own past work and that of Muthiah Alagappa, to suggest that international orders are historical artefacts, constructed over time through processes of “struggle, conflict, accommodation, and cooperation” (141).[18] The book excavates these historical processes and shows how the Sino-Japanese relationship shaped, and was shaped by, the Cold War and post-Cold War U.S.-led orders, and by Chinese-oriented Northeast Asian orders spanning the period 1400-1900. By teasing out the history of these orders, they also remind us that, in the past, states have adopted what today might be regarded as ‘unthinkable’ policy positions as a way to forge strategic bargains: the United States “letting down” its allies Taiwan and South Vietnam in 1971 and 1973 in order to forge rapprochement with the People’s Republic of China (262), or successive Chinese dynasties’ willingness to tolerate Japan’s “indirect challenges to Chinese authority,” so long as they remained indirect (234).

Third, while unpacking the taken-for-granted dimensions of Northeast Asia’s evolving orders and bargains, the authors also sound a cautionary note to those who seek to draw on history to understand contemporary and future inter-state relations.  While they point to longstanding patterns in Northeast Asian ordering behaviour (contingency, asymmetry, selectivity and hybridity, for instance), they are careful to avoid making overly essentialist or positivist predictions about history repeating itself.  Instead, the book’s great power bargain-framed reading of history outlines the kinds of domestic and systemic conditions that would need to exist for a future bargain to be struck between China and Japan.

Fourth, the book takes a fundamentally state-based, and somewhat disjointed, approach to thinking about the role of history in national and international politics.  Part II of the book develops a three-part framework, derived from the work of Alexander Wendt, which considers how nation states might develop “acceptable shared histories” with their neighbours (68).  Elsewhere, in Part III of the book, the authors make the innovative argument that history can provide “rich dialogical resources” for nation states.  That is, because the ‘history problem’ is a constructed narrative, China and Japan (and Korea) could potentially construct alternative historical narratives, in dialogue with one another, around which a new great power bargain might be struck (193).  Unfortunately, these two conceptions of the role of history are not explicitly connected to one another, and it is largely left up to the reader to draw the linkages between Parts II and III of the book. Moreover, while the framework in Part II ostensibly acknowledges that citizens have a “right to a history they can take pride in,” citizens’ pride in their history is deemed important only in so far as it allows the nation to build “collective self-esteem” (68).  By privileging the nation state, the book therefore tends to overlook a crucial, subnational dimension of the ‘history problem’ in Northeast Asia: namely, the way in which well-meaning or cynical subnational actors, such as South Korean civil society groups or right-wing Japanese intellectuals, have perpetuated certain historical events primarily as a way to put pressure on their own national governments, but which often have secondary consequences for relations with neighbouring states. More work needs to be done on fleshing out how national- and international-level efforts to create “acceptable shared histories” might also be made acceptable to the primary domestic audience.  Buzan and Goh themselves remind us that domestic political imperatives have been vital in making possible, or undermining, the bargains forged between China and Japan since 1400, and that domestic political barriers have derailed the various ‘Joint History’ efforts between China and Japan in recent years.  But while the book offers two alternative historical accounts that could help to ameliorate Sino-Japanese alienation, more research is needed on how subnational actors might create and respond to these alternative histories.

Moving beyond the normative adjudication of Northeast Asia’s shared history in Parts I and II of the book, Part III takes a very different tack and deploys a ‘great power bargain’ (GPB) framework to explore the socio-structural conditions that have shaped the China-Japan relationship over the past six hundred years.  The GPB framework distinguishes between constitutive bargains (based on reciprocal understandings about the nature of international order, mutual spheres and domains of authority within that order, and mutual rights and responsibilities within that order) and regulative bargains (the terms regulating interaction, exchange, conflict management, and strategic cooperation) (144).  In Chapters 4 and 5, the authors use this framework to show how different but complementary strategic priorities helped to forge a partial constitutive Sino-Japanese bargain in the 1970s, and then how the breakdown of both the constitutive and regulative dimensions of this bargain led to growing Sino-Japanese alienation in the aftermath of the Cold War.  While these chapters cover familiar empirical terrain, the GPB framework offers a more satisfying explanation for the fluctuating state of post-World War II China-Japan relations than more partial explanations based on identity, economic interdependence, power dynamics, or individual political leaders.

Chapter 6 then dives into what will be less familiar territory for most readers, examining four episodes between 1400 and 1900 when Chinese and Japanese entities made efforts to negotiate strategic bargains with one another.  The major finding of this chapter is that while China and Japan have long found it difficult to forge deep, constitutive bargains, they have succeeded in developing “partial or shallow” bargains that have enabled them to trade and undertake other forms of exchange (230).  Moreover, while they have frequently “fudge[d]” key constitutive questions about their “respective roles and status” (215, 229), China and Japan have nonetheless managed to reach some mutual understandings, often based on an “agreement to disagree” (234).

Such “agreement to disagree” has made possible one of the most enduring features of the China-Japan relationship: the long history of trade and other forms of economic exchange in spite of difficult or absent political ties.  In the early Cold War, Japanese referred to this as ‘seikei bunri,’ or the separation of politics and economics, an approach that allowed the Japanese government to trade unofficially with China without offering it diplomatic recognition.  Buzan and Goh demonstrate that, since the fifteenth century, China and Japan have consistently negotiated creative regulative bargains in the form of ‘tally’ or unofficial trade, “while skirting around the obstacle of the constitutive bargain” (209).

Yet Chapter 6 also highlights the challenge of deploying a conceptual framework consistently across vast swathes of time.  The authors acknowledge the difficulty of comparing the ‘Sino-centric’ orders of the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries with the European/Western-led international society of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  Happily, rather than forcing the history to fit the theory, they augment the GPB framework to take into account these changing order contexts, and the ways in which role and status were often defined in relationship to the Sino-centric orders (198-200). While some scholars might criticise the notion of drawing historical conclusions from such very different political entities and international orders, there is a value to doing so.  In particular, this chapter reveals that the ability of China and Japan to co-exist relatively peacefully was precisely because the Sino-centric orders of the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries were “forgiving of some ambiguity” about roles and status (233). Buzan and Goh’s long and comparative historical account allows us to see that, ironically, it was the arrival of the more rigidly hierarchical Western-led order in the late eighteenth century that forced China and Japan to define more formally their roles and status, with disastrous consequences.

Drawing on these conclusions, Chapter 7 then considers four alternative scenarios for Northeast Asia’s future order, and the relationship of China and Japan within it.  I found this chapter a genuinely page-turning read, and a model of how and why one might undertake a scenario-building exercise.  In a way that is rare in the voluminous IR literature on the subject, the authors make no value judgements about which of these Northeast Asian scenarios might be ‘best’ or ‘ideal,’ instead identifying the trade-offs facing all states under the different scenarios.  The chapter is also compelling because the authors set out explicitly the assumptions underpinning each scenario – many of which are typically left unexamined in U.S.- or Chinese-centred accounts of Asia’s future.  Finally, the authors set out a series of fine-grained indicators, organised around constitutive and/or regulative bargains, about what would need to change in order to make the alternative scenarios come to pass. Policy-makers and scholars alike will learn much from this chapter. Nevertheless, the issue of ‘historical memory’ often felt a little tacked on to the scenario analysis in this chapter.  The ‘history problem’ is of course a function of deeper material and ideational factors rather than determinative in its own right, but it does suggest some disconnect between Parts I and II and Part III of the book.

Rethinking Sino-Japanese Alienation is an important book that will provoke much debate and, hopefully, rethinking across Northeast Asia and beyond.  By rescuing the China-Japan relationship from the stale ‘history problem,’ Buzan and Goh offer more optimism than most about the possibility of a shared, and more constructive, future between China and Japan.




Combining their regional expertise, deep knowledge of the field, and theoretical insights, Barry Buzan and Evelyn Goh offer a nuanced yet forceful analysis of the causes and consequences of, and potential pathways to break out of, the decades-long impasse that is the “history problem” in Northeast Asia.  One of the central claims in the book is that current tensions among countries in the region often rest on “memory myopia” (8, 133, 138, 295), maintained by partial, selective, and parochial narratives of regional violence and victimhood.  As self-proclaimed outside observers, the authors are cautious in their admonishment: “this does not mean that citizens must abandon their preferred story, because most of the existing mainstream positions can find supporting case material.  What must be abandoned is the politically damaging delusion that highly selective stories represent the whole picture” (129).

Given that such incomplete—and sometimes misleading—historical narratives exacerbate negative perceptions and attitudes toward other states, the authors offer some necessary correctives.  First, as two countries that have amassed a certain level of power and status, China and Japan must recognize each other as Great Powers and progress toward a strategic bargain (what the authors refer to as a Great Power Bargain, or GPB) that constitutes and regulates a shared framework of political interaction, economic exchange, and conflict management.  Second, taking a longue duree historical perspective, the authors emphasize the shared experiences of China and Japan as participants in, and contributors to, regional order since premodern times.  By describing a long list of similarities, in addition to differences, in the political and economic development of both countries, the authors warn against what they refer to as the “narcissism of small differences” (7, 51).  Furthermore, the empirical evidence presented in the history of Sino-Japanese bilateral relations suggests that strategic bargains, albeit temporary, have been possible between the two countries and worked to regulate and restrain their interactions.

While recent works have also examined the ebbs and flows of the Sino-Japanese bilateral relationship in greater detail[19] as well as highlighting the important roles played by supporting characters and events external to the region that have fundamentally shaped or altered Chinese and Japanese foreign policies toward one another and other regional countries,[20] Rethinking Sino-Japanese Alienation attempts to do both.  To accomplish these important tasks without sacrificing empirical depth or theoretical rigor is no small feat, and in doing so, Buzan and Goh make a unique and important contribution to the study of East Asian international relations.  The rich analysis provided in their historical and contemporary case studies as well as their adroit engagement with the relevant theoretical literature are exemplary and offer many insights for scholars and policymakers who are interested in East Asian international relations.

For example, many observers of Northeast Asian politics may already have some familiarity with the role of the United States in shaping the postwar regional order in East Asia, the impact of the Cold War in Sino-Japanese relations, and major domestic political changes in post-Cold War China and Japan.  But these important turning points in the regional order tend to be treated as separate topics of study.  By weaving together what can seem like disparate timelines and themes into a GPB-based theoretical framework, Buzan and Goh remind us that Sino-Japanese alienation is neither fixed nor exclusive; instead, it is a variable process that has intensified significantly in the past two decades and one that is enmeshed in preexisting strategic bargains involving a key third party, the United States.  Chapter 4, in particular, provides an excellent illustration of how two sets of U.S.-led GPBs—with Japan (the signing of the San Francisco Peace Treaty and the U.S.-Japan alliance in 1951) and China (entering into a period of détente and a tacit coalition to contain Soviet influence in Asia in 1972) respectively—as well as partial strategic bargains between Japan and China (the economic and diplomatic normalization of Sino-Japanese relations in 1972-1978) have served as enduring constitutive frameworks for political and economic interactions in postwar Northeast Asia.

Significantly, due to changing threat environments as well as discrepancies in status and mutual expectations, all three GPBs started to disintegrate with the end of the Cold War and the rise of China.  Another important factor that looms large in the history of Sino-Japanese relations is the introduction of a new political-legal environment.  For example, during the 1970s and 1980s, China and Japan tacitly agreed to put aside their territorial dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.  But since the 1990s, the new international Law of the Sea regime governing maritime resource use (UNCLOS) made such ambiguity untenable, as both governments were obliged to clarify their maritime boundaries in order to claim their EEZ. This had the almost immediate effect of escalating claims and tensions over the East China Sea.  A good parallel from the book (see fourth case in Chapter 6) is the rapid diffusion of diplomatic treaties and practices based on Westphalian sovereignty principles and the accelerating tensions between China and Japan over the negotiation and enforcement of agreements/treaties in a legally pluralistic environment in nineteenth-century East Asia.

While the GPB framework is very useful for identifying and explaining the constitutive understandings underlying seemingly routine regulative transactions, it also raises interesting methodological and theoretical questions in its application to Sino-Japanese relations and Northeast Asian regional order building.  The first issue is whether or not a GPB between China and Japan is a necessary condition for building a sustainable regional order. It appears as if the GPB framework privileges a firm constitutive bargain as the foundation for stable regional order, but it is unclear if this is meant to apply to Sino-Japanese relations.  The authors claim from the outset that “regional order will ultimately depend significantly on how these two East Asian great powers relate to each other” (2) and that the “failure [to form even a minimalist bargain in the post-Cold War period] deeply impacts on regional order” (9).  Emphasis is also placed on the fact that the late nineteenth century is a “radical departure” point, from which “Japan and China were unable to reach any such bargain, despite their shared experiences of dealing with modernity and Western imperialism,” and that “[n]otably, they have not been able to reach a sustainable bargain since” (134).

Yet, it should be noted that the there is no evidence of a full-fledged constitutive bargain prior to the nineteenth century either.  There is, however, evidence of “constitutive ambiguity” providing space for fungible and fluid relations—for example, in the “over 150 years of officially regulated unofficial trade without a constitutive bargain” (215) between Tokugawa Japan and Qing China, circa 1662-1800.  Moreover, the empirical analysis throughout the book suggests that regulated and restrained interactions were possible through a series of fleeting and fluid but effective strategic bargains during key transition periods.  In some ways, then, the decline of U.S.-led GPBs and regional/global power transitions may offer opportunities for such strategic bargains, although this does not seem to be the case in contemporary Sino-Japanese relations.

A second related question has to do with the membership and scope of a future Northeast Asian GPB.  While recognizing that the book’s purpose is to focus on Sino-Japanese alienation, and strategic bargains among Great Powers (i.e., China and Japan), it is unclear how and to what extent a Sino-Japanese GPB is meant to “trickle down” to other regional and global interactions.  Again, to be clear, the authors themselves acknowledge their compromise of treating the West, the Korean peninsula, and Taiwan as “contributors” who make occasional appearances or appear as background factors (2).  However, given that one of the main points of the book is that Sino-Japanese alienation has occurred in the broader regional and global context, and their attempts at forging strategic bargains interrupted by external pressures and region-wide contingencies, this may be a compromise worth reconsidering (or, perhaps an avenue for further research).    

For example, a significant barrier to resolving many of the ‘history problems’ today stems from the fact that only certain countries were invited to the table and a set of specific narratives were allowed to be included in the U.S.-led GPBs. As the authors note, it is not the case that there were no grand bargains in the postwar period, which resulted in contemporary Sino-Japanese alienation, but rather the existing GPBs in fact excluded or pushed aside issues and concerns that were not perceived as immediately necessary or convenient for the U.S.’s Cold War strategy in East Asia.  (For example, China and South Korea were forced to discuss colonial and wartime reparations directly with Japan through arduous bilateral negotiations, rather than through the San Francisco Peace Treaty conference.) One of the reasons that anti-colonial/imperial, anti-Japan sentiments and the ‘history problem’ flared up after the 1980s was that public protests were discouraged or banned during the height of the Cold War.  Other issues related to comfort women and conscripted laborers emerged as salient issues in the 1990s as the result of new developments and interpretations in international human rights law and norms.  This may be a case for bringing the region back in—especially in a future-oriented, sustainable regional order building project, one that may benefit from Chinese and Japanese leadership, to be sure, but is not necessarily dictated by their “Great Power” concerns.

Third, how feasible are GPBs in general, and specifically in post-Cold War Northeast Asia?  It would have been helpful to get a sense of how many GPBs have existed in the postwar period, in and out of Asia.  More importantly perhaps, are the largely elite-based pacts and shared understandings of the postwar (and Cold War) period (which the authors treat as partial GPBs or informal strategic bargains) able to be transferred to, and compatible with, widely accepted public knowledge?  With economic development, political liberalization, and the spread of various media, we have already seen broader, more salient, better organized public mobilizations of anti-foreign sentiments and national identity politics.  Even in the nineteenth century, Japan’s military actions—reflecting a breakdown of strategic bargains or diplomatic negotiations—were often due to the pressure from members of the public, including merchants, business leaders, adventurers, and diplomats abroad, as well as disgruntled elites.[21] The case studies in Chapter 6 also highlight the importance of domestic political imperatives for the creation and sustainability of GPBs.

In sum, the authors have provided a great service in providing avenues for reshaping academic and public debates.  Their framing of the Northeast Asian ‘history problem’ as containing two layers—one focused on intra-regional victimhood (and more familiar to general publics) and a second layer emphasizing the development of China-Japan relations and Northeast Asian relations in the global historical context—is both convincing and important.  A shared regional understanding of the significance of the shared regional experience of the rapid ‘global transformation’ during the nineteenth century and the various national, regional, and global histories that have contributed to the current impasse may offer adjustments and alternatives to deeply entrenched and debilitating discourses of distrust.




We thank Masami Kimura for organizing this roundtable, and Amy King, Seo-Hyun Park, and Kawashima Shin, for their thorough engagement with our book and for their thoughtful comments on our analysis.  Such reviews generally revolve around what a book contributes to the state of the art, what it could have done better, what mistakes it made, and what it leaves out. Our responses follow that format.


Among the three reviewers, there is some disagreement about what we contributed to the subject.  Amy King and Seo-Hyun Park offer positive assessments, particularly liking our combination of the long historical view, our two-layered cut at the regional and global perspectives, and our systematic use of International Relations (IR) theory to frame the argument. King also likes the openness of the book in the way it thinks about the possible futures for Sino-Japanese relations and regional order. On the other hand, Kawashima Shin seems to suggest that we did not contribute much because other works have already offered the longer historical perspective on Sino-Japanese relations. It is difficult to respond to Kawashima’s review because he both suggests that we do not contribute much, but also says that we “offer important advice” (though he does not say in what way). Our understanding though, is that our book differs significantly from other works that discuss the bilateral history of Japan-China relations—a point also noted by the other two reviewers.  Park appreciates our unique combination of detailed study of the bilateral relationship with the key external factors that impacted on this relationship, while King rightly highlights the fact that “the book is first and foremost situated in International Relations, not history.” Our book is a vital complement to the excellent existing literature that focuses on the history and fine details of the bilateral relationship in four ways.[22]

First, we place the China-Japan relationship in the context of global history using a new evaluative framework that can help overcome “memory myopia,” the “Narcissism of small differences,” and self-referential bilateral accounting of Sino-Japanese relations.  Second, our new “great power bargain” conceptual framework offers a way to understand the interactions between history/memory, power politics, and contingent historical contexts (domestic and international). This allows us to offer a new account of both the long history of attempts by China and Japan to reach strategic bargains, and the road to their contemporary alienation. Third, we explicitly explore the implications of the Sino-Japanese relationship for regional and international order. This enterprise is not the same as simply telling a more ‘complete’ story involving all the relevant actors; it is about locating this bilateral relationship against its various historical contexts and showing how it shaped and was shaped by the struggles over international and regional orders at critical junctures. Finally, our book does not just expand the scope of history backwards; we try to show how fights about the past are at the same time contests about the scope of the future. We develop four future scenarios for East Asia’s regional order, based on different projections about the Sino-Japanese relationship. In contrast to many existing works which are interested in this region’s strategic future, our analysis focuses on East Asia’s resident powers, rather than assuming that the region’s past or future is determined by U.S. policies or interests.[23]

Room for Improvement

What could we have done better?  Kawashima argues that we do not address sufficiently the 1910 textbook dispute, but does not say how doing so would add significantly to our enterprise. More importantly, he suggests that we underplay the fact that China and Japan have both made efforts to open the path to historical reconciliation, but that these efforts failed because of unpropitious domestic politics at crucial junctures. Unlucky timing may well be one factor, but we do not think it is the key explanation. Nor do we stress, as he does, the importance of the gestures towards reconciling bilateral versions of history. We find more salient the way in which the continuation of the history problem serves powerful political interests in both countries, for which a threatening external environment serves domestic interests.[24] Japan’s conciliatory moves were always internally contested, and from the 1980s onwards the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was cultivating a nationalism of victimhood around the ‘century of humiliation’ that placed Japan as the central villain. A similar dynamic is being replayed today by the current drift towards a cold war between China and the West, where the best explanation for China’s behaviour is that President Xi Jinping wants a more hostile international environment in order to justify and legitimise the CCP’s desire to preserve its own rule by deepening and strengthening its grip on China’s society and economy.

This is a way of saying that historical memory tends to be used instrumentally by both China and Japan in their broader political and strategic contest.  However, as we make clear in the book, history/memory is not just an instrument for power contests and domestic mobilisation; the history problem is also deeply woven into the socio-normative fabric of this troubled relationship. The specific disputes over the history of the Sino-Japanese Wars are a sub-section of a much bigger roadblock Japan and China have faced since Japan’s failed challenge to the Sinic order. Because that power transition was interrupted by the United States and the Cold War, the necessary Sino-Japanese settlement has not occurred, leaving unresolved the task of reaching essential new, mutually acceptable agreements about deeper questions of mutual identities and rules of the game. The latter is what we mean by our key concept of “constitutive bargains.”

There are two aspects to the Japan-China ‘history problem.’ First, at the deeper level, the dispute over the memory of the Sino-Japanese Wars has become embedded in the constitutive roadblock, because this dispute seriously constrains the possibilities of more fundamental agreement on acceptable mutual identities, legitimate roles, and aspirations for order.  There is a secondary level of what we call “regulative bargains”—mechanisms for regulating interactions between the two sides that include various functional ways of managing the history disputes—such as the 1950s-1970s agreement to ‘set aside’ the dispute, and dialogues and working groups to discuss textbooks, forms of apology, and commemoration.  But because regulative bargains are fundamentally circumscribed by constitutive conditions, purely focusing on regulative mechanisms is of limited use. This is why, for example, so much of the existing discourse about the Japan-China history problem that adopts the narrow functional view tends towards deadlock.

Using a better conceptual lens and a broader historical view, our book reveals how the Sino-Japanese dispute over nineteenth-twentieth century history is nested within bigger problems of power, purpose, and order.  Recognising this set of constitutive problems suggests there may be no prospect of overcoming the history problem just by offering the correct type of apology, for example. The politics of memory myopia on both sides have gone too far for this to suffice. It is even doubtful whether the history problem can be resolved in the toxic atmosphere of its own silo. Instead, the history disputes might eventually only be resolvable if tackled as part of the bigger challenge of how to reach a new constitutive bargain between the two most important players in the East Asian order.


We offer this explanation also as a way to address King’s criticism that we should have done a better job of showing how the thread of historical memory in Parts I and II connects to the analysis in Part III. We agree that we should have done more to show how the nature and depth of the history problem between China and Japan is connected to their contemporary difficulties in constructing a constitutive bargain. Hopefully, the above discussion sketches the outlines of this missing link. The question that remains, then, is whether and how the deep roadblocks in this relationship can be resolved.

In this regard, Park raises the excellent question of whether, given the evidence from 1400-1900 Sino-Japanese history we present, constitutive bargains are necessary for regional order.  Kawashima raises the same question indirectly by observing that the recent improvement in Sino-Japanese relations since 2017 did not require any addressing of the history problem. Our book argues that mainly economic, regulative agreements have been possible between China and Japan even when they agreed to disagree about constitutive issues, but that this is hardly sufficient to underpin any kind of deep or stable regional political order. Our post-1951 analysis showed that the inability to reach mutual constitutive understanding stymied Sino-Japanese relations. But we tested this further by investigating the longer history from 1400 to 1900, which in turn allowed us to distil the conditions under which regulative bargains might have been possible without constitutive agreement. Crucially, however, we find that these conditions do not hold in the contemporary context, and are very unlikely to arise in the foreseeable future. Given the current context of what we call China and Japan’s “parallel new ‘normalization’ processes” (Buzan and Goh 2020: 166), their imperative of having to reckon face-to-face due to the unfeasibility of the U.S. ring-holding role, the depth of their alienation and unresolved power transition, we suggest that there is no turning back to the apogee of ‘hot economics, cold politics’ enjoyed between the Tokugawa Shogunate and Qing China in the second half of the seventeenth century. And, because the current conditions are unpropitious, examples like the improvement of relations since 2017 are short-term developments that will not change the deep-seated problem because, as we show, the constitutive basis of the relationship is more fundamentally broken and as yet unrepaired.

Now this does not mean that we should give up, or that the history problem can be swept under the rug.  Our book actually offers two ways forward. First, as both King and Park recognise, we offer important and significant additional ways to think about the shared history between these two countries and peoples. We offer up more shared history for consideration, and also demonstrate what we believe are better tools for analysing and learning from history. We contribute these as important additional resources for scholars and policy-makers who want to take history seriously, to use it, and to learn from it. Second, having identified the more deep-seated constitutive problem of power and order between China and Japan, we offer systematic ways of broadening the horizon of imagination for what changes might be possible going forward. In the four future scenarios, we consciously build the full range of possibilities for the Japan-China relationship. As King notes, we construct these scenarios objectively, without loading each with normative judgments. Instead, our focus is on identifying what the key trade-offs would be, and what would need to change for each to come to pass. There is no ‘best’ or ‘ideal’ scenario, only our analysis that the current situation is unsustainable, and that the de facto outcome of naked balance-of-power politics if the Sino-Japanese bargain is not attended to is the most unstable and war-prone possibility.

Since the book’s publication, the prospects of deepening Sino-Japanese alienation have only grown.  The rivalry between the U.S. and China has deepened and widened, and they are seemingly headed for a new cold war that the current leaderships on both sides are keener to intensify than moderate. Japan is under pressure to demonstrate alliance loyalty in this contest, and the Japanese government has stepped up incentives to persuade some economic sectors to relocate in advance of the possible economic decoupling from China. Against this context, our four scenarios may be gaining in pertinence, precisely because the worsening of U.S.-China relations suggests that “we stand at the precipice of the next critical juncture in regional and global history,” and at times like this, “we are not only justified, but positively obliged, to look far and wide and deep for inspiration as we try to re-imagine the possible options going forward” (239-240). We might have fleshed out the fifth scenario of balance of power, which captures where we are headed if these two East Asian powers cannot repair their constitutive bargain—but that is the one scenario that our audiences would already be most familiar with.

Mistakes and Omissions

Thankfully, the reviewers do not castigate us too much for making mistakes.  King thinks that when comparing the rise stories of Japan and China, we overlook the birth of modernisation and nationalism in Republican-era China. We disagree. We acknowledge that there was a development of nationalism and some economic development, but argue that the development was largely lost in the civil and international wars that devastated China between the 1920s and 1949. We could, and perhaps should, have said more about the broader evolution of nationalism in China, which, after being resisted by the Qing throughout the nineteenth century, finally came fully into play in Chinese politics after 1911.

Kawashima suggests that by focusing on the significant role played by Japan from the 1890s until the 1920s in supporting Chinese reformers, including many of China’s future leaders, we play into the CCP’s ‘split image’ narrative that makes an enemy out of the Japanese government and military, but not of the Japanese people.  It is unclear why this would matter to our analysis even if it were true. Just because CCP propagandists say something does not necessarily mean it is wholly wrong. Moreover, a simple split between the people (good) and the government/military (bad) hardly represents the true nature of contestation within Japan when it comes to relations with China. Both the people and the government were divided on whether to help China modernize or to exploit its weakness. This issue leads to the broader point about differentiating domestic actors—governing factions, business leaders, civil society activists, etc.—as part of this story, which belongs under the category of things we were unable to address in great detail in the book.

King and Kawashima both argue that our book is too state-centric, not saying nearly enough about the role of domestic actors in the history problem.  In general, it is important to note that the bulk of the existing literature on the China-Japan ‘history problem’ (at least in the Japan case, and less so in the China case) already focuses a great deal on domestic politics.[25] Thus, we discuss and reference these issues when especially relevant (for example, referring to key controversies in China about rethinking relations with Japan in the 2000s; the changing domestic constituencies in Japan favouring the old bargain with China between the 1970s and 2000s; and key leaders on both sides who made the most significant gestures/departures). Apart from that, though, the question of changing interest groups and actors in China and Japan certainly warrants exploration, and we hope that our book might inspire other scholars better placed than us to do that work.

For instance, King mentions the Japanese right wing as one example of our neglect, and the ultra-nationalists in China are equally deserving of study.  Indeed, a powerful case could be made for looking closely at how political parties in both countries—the CCP in China, and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the Socialists in Japan—have argued and positioned themselves in relation to the history problem.  The corporate sector in Japan would be another candidate for study. We do argue that the Japanese establishment has preferred to avoid discussing the history problem, fearing that it would expose deep and difficult questions about Japanese identity, and hoping, so far without reward, that it will go away as time passes. We observe that the CCP has flip-flopped on this question, but since the 1980s has settled on vilifying Japan as a central pillar of a victimhood nationalism that the Party has cultivated to support its own legitimacy. Much more could be said about this. Kawashima adds the interesting suggestion that China might be laying the foundations for a history problem with the U.S. by playing to the symbolic issue of the 1999 embassy bombing in Belgrade. This opens the way for a broader enquiry into the idea that history problems might be a particular foreign policy instrument in the hands of the CCP. It is a plausible hypothesis about Communist regimes which seem strongly drawn to George Orwell’s famous formula from 1984 that “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.”[26]

In a somewhat similar critique of omission, Park points to our neglect of other regional actors, particularly Korea and Taiwan, and asks whether liberalization and the relative unleashing of public opinion and the media have inflamed anti-foreign sentiment in a way that makes great power bargains (GPBs) more difficult.  As we indicate in the book’s introduction, we were cognisant of this dilemma, and we tried hard to reflect sufficiently Korea’s important role and agency in the story, despite not being able to devote detailed focused attention to it for its own sake. As we hint in the book, the same questions might be asked about Russia and Southeast Asia. And of course, if one brings in other regional states, then the point about including the domestic actors within them is relevant to them, too.

We absolutely agree that more analysis is due on all of these topics.  In part, this urgent need reflects the general dearth of more holistic studies of the shared history and international relations of a region as vital as East Asia (a gap that our reviewers have themselves tried to fill in their own important works).[27] Of course, the standard response of authors to critiques of omission is to blame publishers for not being willing to entertain books that are too long. With Rethinking Sino-Japanese Alienation however, Oxford University Press has been very accommodating. Our book stands at 140,000 words, which is nearly 50% longer than the average academic book. Nevertheless, it is dangerous to overburden any book with too wide a remit. We chose the relatively narrow focus of China and Japan because it was separable enough from these other topics to be viable, and because this focus enabled us to say some powerful things with more clarity and punch.  Some of the force of that argument would have been dissipated if we had written a much longer book taking these other issues on board. There is also a question of research expertise. Our comparative advantage in this project was being outsiders and coming with a strong package of IR theory, global history, and the IR of East Asia to add to the historical discussion.

Further Research

What this suggests to us is that if our core argument stands, and is considered an interesting opening into the subject, then these deficiencies in our coverage open up a wider research agenda about both this history problem and others.  There is easily room in these suggestions for many articles, and several books or doctoral theses. Most of those could, and should, be written by people with different research skills than ours, particularly in terms of specific language and country expertise in the study of domestic politics and history. Such studies might support our general analysis while adding depth and nuance to it, or they might bring aspects of it into question. Either way, we would be an enthusiastic audience for such work. One topic that we might be most able to conduct more research on is Park’s question about how Northeast Asia compares with other regions in terms of Great Power Bargains. Is it typical or unusual in its pattern?

Beyond that, the book offers two approaches that might be further developed in studies that explore other cases and contexts.  Such further research can expand comparative studies of shared histories in addressing other instance of memory myopia, and investigating the interconnections between local, regional, and global history. On the other hand, other further research can test the utility of our two-level bargains framework for understanding foundational socio-normative structures of order, and how particular inter-state relationships interact with, or are located within them. In these ways, we hope to spur new avenues of research at the conjunctions of IR, area studies, and history.


[1] Quoted in Yamaguchi Kikuichirō, Hoshutō kara mita shin Chūgoku [The new China seen by the Conservative Party] (Tokyo: Yomiuri shimbunsha, 1955), 130.

[2] Robert Taylor, The Sino-Japanese Axis: A New Force in Asia (London: St. Martin’s, 1985).

[3] Review by Donald S. Zagoria, Foreign Affairs (Winter 1985/86).

[4] Notable monographs focusing on the history problem in Sino-Japanese relations published in the last decade include Carolina Rose, Sino-Japanese Relations: Facing the Past, Looking to the Future?  (New York: Routledge, 2005); Yinan He, The Search for Reconciliation: Sino-Japanese and German-Polish Relations since World War II (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009); Karl Gustafsson, Narratives and Bilateral Relations: Rethinking the “History Issue” in Sino-Japanese Relations (Stockholm: Stockholm University, 2011).  Toward a History beyond Borders: Contentious Issues in Sino-Japanese Relations (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Asia Center, 2012), co-edited by this author grew out of a multiyear non-government dialogue involving Chinese and Japanese historians.  Critically examining the most disputed issues in modern history as well as controversies over Japanese history textbooks and the Yasukuni Shrine, the book has been published in both China and Japan.

[5] Ezra F. Vogel, China and Japan: Facing History (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2020).  Vogel had previously spearheaded a multilateral study of the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) with the participation of both Chinese and Japanese historians.  Papers from these conferences have been published by the Stanford University Press.

[6] Vogel, China and Japan, vii.

[7] Barry Buzan, “Japan;s Future: Old History versus New Roles,” International Affairs 64:4 (Autumn, 1988): 557-573. 

[8] An early effort to overcome such dichotomies is a book published in Japan, edited by Japanese historian Yamada Tatsuo, Nitchū kankei no 150 nen: Sōgo izon kyōzon tekitai [150 Years of Sino-Japanese Relations: Interdependence, Co-existence, Confrontation] (Tokyo: Tōhō shoten, 1994). 

[9] Ezra Vogel, China and Japan: Facing History (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2019).

[10] Shin Kawashima, “Sino-Japanese Controversies over the Textbook Problem and the League of Nations,” in Networking the International System: Global Histories of International Organizations, ed. Madeleine Herren (Cham: Springer, 2014), 91-106.  The authors note the existence of this controversy, but do not further analyze how it might reflect the development of the Sino-Japanese ‘history problem’ (61, n.10).

[11] For example, Hongbing Wang analyzes Japan’s opium policy to argue that the Japanese invasion of China began in 1895 and spanned five decades.  See Hongbing Wang, A’pian: Riben lüehua dupin zhengce wushi nian: 1895-1945 (Opium: Fifty Years of Japanese Drug Policy for Invading China: 1895-1945) (Shanghai: Shehui kexue chubanshe, 2016).  A particularly prominent strand of interpretation holds that Japan developed a comprehensive ‘Continental Policy’ in response to the country’s lack of land and natural resources.  Tracing the origins of Sino-Japanese confrontation to the Meiji Period, such research argues that Japan sought markets and resource supplies abroad in order to aid in its construction of a modern state.  Research from China along these lines is too numerous to list.

[12] See, for instance, Xiaoqiu Wang, Jindai Zhong ri wenhua jiaoliu shi (History of Modern Sino-Japanese Cultural Exchange) (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1992).  Keishū Sanetō and other Japanese scholars have also examined this issue; see Keishū Sanetō, Chūgoku Ryūgakusei Shidan (History of Chinese Exchange Students) (Tokyo: Daiichi Shobo, 1981).

[13] “JAPAN-CHINA JOINT HISTORY RESEARCH REPORT,” March 2011, at the website of Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan, https://www.mofa.go.jp/region/asia-paci/china/pdfs/jcjhrr_mch_en1.pdf.

[14] Daqing Yang, Jie Liu, Hiroshi Mitani, and Andrew Gordon, eds., Toward a History beyond Borders: Contentious Issues in Sino-Japanese Relations (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012).

[15] See Shin Kawashima, “Chūgoku no chūka minkoku shi kenkyu – Chūka minkoku sendai shi no ichi zuke nit suite kangaeru” (Chinese Research on the Republic of China: Contemplating the Positioning of the Zhonghua minguo zhuanti shi [History of Special Topics in Republic of China History]) in Shin Kawashima and Motoya Nakamura, ed. Chūka minkoku kenkyū no dōkō – chūgoku to nihon no chūgoku kindai shi rikai (Trends in Republic of China Research: Chinese and Japanese Understandings of Modern Chinese History) (Kyoto: Kōyō Shobo, 2019). See also, Shin Kawashima, “Minkoku shi kenkyū no kujū” (The Anguish of Researching the Republic of China), Science Portal China, China Research and Sakura Science Center, May 25th, 2016, https://spc.jst.go.jp/experiences/kawashima/kawashima_1604.html; Shin Kawashima, “Minkoku shi kenkyū kara kōnichi sensō shi kenkyū e?  Kōsen hachi nen/jū-yon nen/ go-jū nen” (From a History of the Republic of China to a History of the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression?  Eight years/ Fourteen Years/ Fifty Years of War), Science Portal China, China Research and Sakura Science Center, September 6th, 2017, https://spc.jst.go.jp/experiences/kawashima/kawashima_1701.html.

[16] See “Wo zhu nan lianmeng dashi guan bei zha ershi yi zhou nian wangyou reyi: wu wang guo chi” (The Twenty-first Anniversary of the Bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia Netizens React: Never Forget this National Humiliation), china.com, 8 May 2020, https://news.china.com/socialgd/10000169/20200508/38190371.html.

[17] Amy King, China-Japan Relations after World War Two: Empire, Industry and War, 1949-1971 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 12.

[18] Quote taken from Muthiah Alagappa, ed., Asian Security Order: Instrumental and Normative Features (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), 39.

[19] Ezra F. Vogel, China and Japan: Facing History (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2019); Sheila A. Smith, Intimate Rivals: Japanese Politics and a Rising China (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015); Joshua A. Fogel, Articulating the Sinosphere: Sino-Japanese Relations in Space and Time (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009).

[20] Yukiko Koshiro, Imperial Eclipse: Japan’s Strategic Thinking about Continental Asia before August 1945 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013); Alexis Dudden, “Korea’s and Japan’s Rocky Standoff,” in Asian Nationalisms Reconsidered, ed. Jeff Kingston (London and New York: Routledge, 2016), 103-115; Hiroshi Mitani, “Why Do We Still Need to Talk about ‘Historical Understanding’ in East Asia?,” The Asia-Pacific Journal 12:32:3, 9 August 2014.

[21] Paul D. Barclay, Outcasts of Empire: Japan’s Rule on Taiwan’s ‘Savage Border,’ 1874-1945 (Oakland: University of California Press, 2018); Robert Eskildsen, Transforming Empire in Japan and East Asia: The Taiwan Expedition and the Birth of Japanese Imperialism (New York: Palgrave, 2019); Erik Esselstrom, Crossing Empire’s Edge: Foreign Ministry Police and Japanese Expansionism in Northeast Asia (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2009); S. C. M. Paine, The Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895: Perceptions, Power, and Primacy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003); Naoko Shimazu, Japanese Society at War: Death, Memory, and the Russo-Japanese War (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

[22] As epitomized by Ezra Vogel, China and Japan: Facing History (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2019), which was released while our book was in press.

[23] Examples of these other works, usually centered on US foreign policy or US-China relations, include Michael Green, By More Than Providence: Grand Strategy and American Power in the Pacific Since 1873 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017); Michael O’Hanlon and James Steinberg, A Glass Half Full?  Rebalance, Reassurance, and Resolve in the U.S.-China Strategic Relationship (Washington DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2017); David C. Kang, American Grand Strategy and East Asian Security in the Twenty-First Century (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017).

[24] The continuation of the Japan-China history problem also serves external interests, such as U.S. hegemony in East Asia.  See Evelyn Goh, The Struggle for Order: Hierarchy, Hegemony, and Order Transition in Post-Cold War East Asia (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), Ch. 6.

[25] See, for example, Caroline Rose, Sino-Japanese Relations: Facing the Past, Looking to the Future?  (London: Routledge Curzon, 2005); Ming Wan, Understanding Japan-China Relations: Theories and Issues (New Jersey: World Scientific, 2016); Sheila A. Smith, Intimate Rivals: Japanese Politics and a Rising China (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015).

[26] George Orwell, 1984 (London: Penguin, 2000 [1949]), 260.

[27] Amy King, China-Japan Relations after World War Two: Empire, Industry and War,1949-1971, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016); Seo-Hyun Park, Sovereignty and Status in East Asian International Relations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017); Kokubun Ryosei, Yoshihide Soeya, Akio Takahara & Shin Kawashima, Japan-China Relations in the Modern Era (Abingdon: Routledge, 2017), trans. Keith Krulak.

Categories: Roundtable, H-DiploPub
Keywords: China, japan