The 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War and the Transformation of Japan’s Relations with China in Diplomacy and Discourse

Robert Hoppens, Department of History and Philosophy, University of Texas Pan American [About | Email]

Volume 14, Issue 2 (Article 6 in 2014). First published in ejcjs on 29 July 2014.


The 1979 war between Vietnam and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) came at a pivotal time in Japan’s relations with China. Occurring just as Japan and China were consolidating a more cooperative relationship, the war was an early test of this new relationship. An examination of Japanese reactions to the war, in the realms of diplomacy and public discourse, reveals important sources of both cooperation and friction. In the diplomatic realm, the war did not obstruct the establishment of a more cooperative Sino-Japanese relationship or the beginning of Japanese economic aid to the PRC at the end of 1979. Reactions to the war in public discourse, however, revealed important changes in Japanese perceptions of the PRC. The war weakened identification with China and Chinese nationalism among Japanese leftists and progressives while encouraging a triumphalist conservative nationalist narrative. The war also encouraged many Japanese across the political spectrum to view the PRC as a typical great power driven by power politics and an atavistic, perhaps dangerous, nationalism. Japanese reactions to the war reveal that transformation of Sino-Japanese relations in the 1970s created not just a more cooperative diplomatic relation but also discursive trends that could undermine this relationship.

Keywords: 1979 Sino-Vietnamese war, Sino-Japanese relations, People’s Republic of China (PRC), national identity.


Over the course of the 1970s, Japan and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) overcame Cold War estrangement to forge a complementary and cooperative relationship. The two powers of East Asia normalised relations in 1972, concluded a treaty of peace and friendship in 1978, and in December of 1979 the Japanese government extended the first of a series of economic aid packages in support of PRC reform efforts. Complementary strategic and economic interests provided the basis for a period of friendly relations in the 1970s and 1980s that in hindsight might be considered a honeymoon period or golden age in the history of postwar Sino-Japanese relations (Vogel et al. 2002).

Not all proceeded smoothly, of course. Some have argued that, in fact, the strategic and economic settlements of the 1970s left other important issues, including territorial and historical disputes unresolved (Etō 2008, 38). Managing Japan’s relations with the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan was a source of recurring friction in the 1970s. In 1978 the first direct confrontation over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands erupted, threatening to derail peace treaty negotiations. The early 1980s saw the emergence of the international “history problem” in controversies regarding the wording of Japanese history textbooks and visits by Japanese politicians to the Yasukuni Shrine. All of these issues bedevil Japan’s relations with China today and scholars in Japan, China and elsewhere comb the history of the 1970s for the sources of these problems. The history of the 1970s is thus a wellspring to which scholars return in order to understand both the prospects for friendship and the origins of friction in the contemporary relationship.

The Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979 was an early test of the emerging relationship. The war erupted in February at a crucial juncture in the establishment of the new relationship and raised concerns about the strategic implications of the new relationship with China that might have derailed progress toward economic cooperation. Yet very little has been written on the war in the context of Japan’s evolving relationship with China. There is a considerable literature on Sino-Japanese relations in the 1970s, but in most of this literature the 1979 war receives little attention. The conflicts in Vietnam, of course, are the subject of a voluminous literature, including insightful accounts of the involvement of both Japan and China. Most of this literature, however, does not treat the 1979 war in detail.1 If the war itself has received relatively little attention, Japan’s response to the conflict has received almost none. To a certain extent this is understandable as it must be conceded at the outset that Japan was peripheral to the conflict.

Yet, the war provides an excellent case study of Japanese diplomacy and discourse in relations with China in the late 1970s. In this article I will argue that examination of Japanese responses to the Sino-Vietnamese War, both diplomatic and discursive, reveals that the transformation of the diplomatic relationship in the 1970s not only laid the basis for cooperative political and economic relations in the 1980s, but also changed the Japanese discourse on relations with China in ways that would threaten this cooperative relationship and plant the seeds of later tension. First, in terms of diplomacy, the brief war did not obstruct progress toward a more cooperative relationship. Whatever their misgivings, Japanese leaders took no action that might have impeded plans for the extension of Japanese Official Development Assistance (ODA) to the PRC at the end of 1979; assistance which became the basis for cooperative relations in the 1980s. Second, while the direct diplomatic fallout was relatively limited, the war provoked a brief but intense reaction in Japan that illuminates how discourse on relations with China had changed in response to the transformation of diplomatic relations in ways that would have significant repercussions. The war alienated Japanese leftists and progressives who heretofore had championed closer relations with the PRC for reasons of ideological and Asianist solidarity. Moreover, by undermining these leftist and progressive narratives, the war encouraged a conservative triumphalism that asserted the success of the postwar Japanese conservative political-economic order and, indeed, of modern Japanese history in general. By 1979 diplomacy and discourse combined to support a conservative Japanese government policy of close cooperation with the PRC but also attitudes toward China that would energise opposition to cooperation when the emergence of the history problem and the rise of China threatened triumphalist narratives of Japanese national identity.

Sino-Japanese Relations in the 1970s: From Normalisation to the Peace and Friendship Treaty

The normalisation of relations in 1972 was the seminal event in the transformation of relations between Japan and the PRC. From the founding of the Chinese communist regime in 1949, Sino-American hostility precluded diplomatic relations between Japan and the PRC despite the development of limited unofficial contacts and trade. Even the Sino-Soviet split, which became increasingly apparent after 1960, did not ease tensions between the United States and the PRC. Rather, American military intervention in Vietnam and Chinese support for the North Vietnamese only increased the hostility. The Japanese, for their part, managed to resist direct involvement in the war, though Japanese corporations profited handsomely from procurement orders and popular Japanese opposition to the war bedeviled the conservative government’s policy of support for the United States. By 1969, however, Sino-Soviet relations had deteriorated to such a point—including armed border clashes—that the PRC leadership defined the Soviet Union as its primary enemy and became increasingly interested in improving relations with the United States and its Japanese ally. At the same time, the new Nixon administration sought an opening to Beijing in hopes of expediting a negotiated settlement to the draining and divisive war in Vietnam. Compatible Sino-American strategic interests culminated in President Richard Nixon’s surprise announcement in July 1971 that he would visit Beijing to seek rapprochement with China’s communist rulers.

In the wake of this first Nixon shock the Japanese government moved quickly to establish diplomatic relations with the PRC. When Japanese Prime Minister Tanaka Kakuei and his foreign minister, Ōhira Masayoshi, arrived in Beijing in September 1972, they hammered out a joint communiqué that ended the “abnormal state of affairs” between the two nations and established diplomatic relations between Japan and the PRC for the first time. The Japanese side recognised the People’s Republic as the sole legal government of China and expressed their understanding and respect for the PRC claim that Taiwan was a part of China. The joint communiqué also included a statement of remorse for the suffering inflicted on China by the Japanese invasion and a waiver of PRC reparations claims. In a press conference immediately after the release of the joint communiqué, Foreign Minister Ōhira declared that the joint communiqué and the establishment of relations with the PRC effectively “ended” Japan’s relations with the Republic of China on Taiwan, which the Japanese government had recognised since 1952, though unofficial trade and cultural relations would continue (Hattori 2011; MOFA 1972).

The joint communiqué also included an anti-hegemony clause in which the two sides agreed that “Neither of the two countries should seek hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region and each is opposed to efforts by any other country or group of countries to establish such hegemony” (MOFA 1972). The PRC leadership had long called for resistance to the hegemony of the two superpowers, but with the Sino-American rapprochement, the invocation of anti-hegemony was commonly understood internationally to be directed at the Soviet Union. The Japanese side understood this and sought to soften the anti-Soviet implications of this clause by including along with it a third-country provision; a sentence stating that the “normalisation of relations between Japan and China is not directed against any third country” (MOFA 1972). The 1972 Sino-Japanese rapprochement, therefore, was driven by strategic initiatives in Beijing and Washington, especially by Chinese strategic concerns about the Soviet Union. That these strategic concerns alone were an insufficient basis of Sino-Japanese friendship became clear in the negotiation of a peace treaty.

Peace treaty negotiations, as called for in the joint communiqué, began in 1974. Negotiations soon bogged down, however, due to the conflicting strategic aims of the two sides regarding their respective relations with the Soviet Union.  The PRC leadership, hoping to use the peace treaty as part of its global strategy to isolate the Soviet Union, insisted on including in the treaty an anti-hegemony clause similar to that in the joint communiqué.  Japanese leaders, on the other hand, hoping to improve relations with both the PRC and the Soviet Union and trying to avoid being drawn into the Sino-Soviet dispute, resisted the inclusion of an anti-hegemony clause in the treaty. Even a later Japanese compromise position that accepted an anti-hegemony clause accompanied by a statement that the treaty was not directed against any specific third country failed to placate the Chinese, even though the normalisation joint communiqué had included just such a third country provision (Wakatsuki 2012, 102-106).

After foundering on differing strategic priorities, negotiations ground to a halt due to the upheaval in PRC domestic politics surrounding the death of Mao Zedong in 1976. Movement in the Sino-Japanese relationship awaited the return of political stability in Beijing. Although leadership struggles continued until Deng Xiaoping emerged as paramount leader in December 1978, the post-Mao leadership was united in a commitment to the Four Modernisations, a program of rapid development of agriculture, industry, defense and science and technology. Concomitant interest in obtaining Japanese economic and technical assistance in support of modernisation encouraged Chinese compromise on the anti-hegemony issue. The resulting treaty of peace and friendship signed in August 1978 included both an anti-hegemony clause and a provision stating that “The present treaty shall not affect the position of either Contracting Party regarding its relations with any third country” (MOFA 1978a). Strategic interests remained important, but it was the increased interest in economic cooperation with Japan that broke the impasse on the peace treaty. The confluence of strategic and economic interests shaped the two countries’ approach to the 1979 war and was on full display during Deng’s visit to Tokyo in October 1978.

Vietnam and Deng’s Japan Visit, October 1978

The improvement in Sino-Japanese relations that culminated in the peace treaty paralleled the breakdown of Sino-Vietnamese relations that led to war in 1979. PRC moves toward the United States strained relations with Vietnam. The North Vietnamese feared US wedge-driving efforts and Chinese betrayal. The 1973 Paris accords brought an end to conflict with the Americans, but Sino-Vietnamese border and territorial disputes flared. After the fall of Saigon in 1975, the PRC refused Vietnamese requests for reconstruction aid, while extending economic aid to the vehemently anti-Vietnamese Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. In response, the Vietnamese government moved closer to the Soviet Union. In October 1975, Le Duan visited Moscow and received promises of Soviet aid (Zhai 2000, 201-214). By 1978, the Soviet-backed Vietnamese looked increasingly likely to invade Cambodia, a country ruled by a PRC-supported Khmer Rouge regime. To Deng Xiaoping and the Chinese leadership, Vietnamese actions looked more and more like part of a Soviet effort to encircle China (Zhang 2010, 13-14). All of this, combined with the desire for economic and technical cooperation, fanned PRC desires to improve relations with both the United States and Japan.

In October 1978 Deng visited Tokyo, ostensibly for the ceremonial exchange of instruments of ratification of the peace and friendship treaty. In fact, the visit was part of Deng’s diplomatic offensive against the Soviet Union and Vietnam as well as a chance to drum up Japanese support for the Chinese modernisation program.2

In his talks with Japanese Prime Minister Fukuda Takeo, Deng made the strategic importance of the new relationship clear, placing the peace treaty in the context of a global effort to contain Soviet expansion. Deng argued that the Soviet Union was bent on expansion all around the globe, from sub-Saharan Africa to East Asia. He worried that not everyone took the Soviet threat seriously enough. “Generally speaking,” Deng explained, “China is more anxious about the world situation than other countries” (MOFA 1978b, 5). Deng criticised American efforts at détente and arms control and complained about the naiveté of public opinion in the West and in Japan. Implicitly repudiating the concerns of Japanese progressives (who until the 1970s had enjoyed Chinese rhetorical support) Deng explained that, although the American military tended to attract public criticism, the real threat was the Soviet Union. “China, Japan, all the nations of the world want peace. The Soviet Union is the only exception to this.” In this situation Deng warned, “we cannot pursue appeasement” (MOFA 1978b, 6, 8-9).

The Soviet threat was especially pronounced in Indochina. Vietnam, Deng explained, was an agent of Soviet expansion, the “Cuba of the East.” Just as Cuba was actively aiding the expansion of Soviet influence in Africa, so the Vietnamese worked to expand Soviet influence in Southeast Asia by its attempts to dominate Laos and Cambodia. Deng also displayed an emotional, nationalist pique in his indictment of Vietnamese actions. Deng played up Vietnamese ingratitude and arrogance toward the PRC. Deng complained that, despite the fact that the PRC had been the most generous source of aid, providing some US$20 billion to Vietnam to support its war against the United States, the Vietnamese had turned on China spewing propaganda about the “threat from the North,” and adopting anti-Chinese textbooks. Since unification, the Vietnamese had also been, “bragging that they are the world’s third greatest military power after the United States and the Soviet Union” (MOFA 1978b, 10, 13-14).

Significantly, Deng never invoked the anti-hegemony clause the Chinese had insisted on so forcefully in the peace treaty. Many in Japan had feared that acceptance of the PRC position on anti-hegemony would draw Japan into China’s conflict with the Soviet Union. Chinese policy toward Vietnam seemed to confirm these fears. While in his public press conferences Deng reiterated the importance of the anti-hegemony principle, even calling it the “core” of the Japan-China peace treaty, Deng never suggested that the commitment to anti-hegemony obligated the Japanese leadership to support PRC positions toward Vietnam or to take action against the Vietnamese. In fact, Deng seemed at pains to avoid mentioning the anti-hegemony clause, probably precisely out of concern for Japanese popular opinion (Pei 2002, 143; Tian 2002, 338; ZZWY 2004, 411; Masuo 2010, 102).

Fukuda, for his part, reiterated his basic foreign policy of omni-directional diplomacy (zenhōi heiwa gaikō), according to which Japan would seek friendly relations with all countries. On the other hand, Fukuda explained that an omni-directional foreign policy did not necessarily mean an equidistant foreign policy (tōkyori gaikō), suggesting that the Japanese government was moving away from its earlier position of seeking a balance in relations between China and the Soviet Union (MOFA 1978b, 3; Pei 2002, 141). Fukuda also stressed that he sought to coordinate his policy in Indochina with the ASEAN nations (MOFA 1978b, 11). Improved relations with Southeast Asia was an important pillar in Fukuda’s foreign policy, sometimes referred to as the Fukuda doctrine. Coordination with ASEAN became the standard Japanese response to PRC calls for a more active Japanese policy toward Vietnam. Fukuda thus seemingly precluded any active cooperation with the PRC on the Indochina problem.

Yet Fukuda’s position was agreeable to Deng. He welcomed the move away from equidistance in the Sino-Soviet dispute saying that such a position “could be the cornerstone of even greater friendship in the future” (MOFA 1978b, 24). Deng also encouraged the Japanese to cooperate with and increase aid to Southeast Asia saying, “We sincerely hope that Japan will do more on this front” (MOFA 1978b, 12; ZZWY 2004, 407). Deng was already working to convince Southeast Asian nations of the Vietnamese threat to regional stability. Japanese policy coordination with Southeast Asia thus could help isolate Vietnam internationally. In the end, what Deng needed was not necessarily Japanese support for his policy toward Vietnam, but acquiescence. As long as he could head off Japanese aid to the Vietnamese, Deng could rely on the United States to deter the Soviet Union and the nations of Southeast Asia to isolate Vietnam. Thus, despite Fukuda’s lukewarm response, Deng welcomed it wholeheartedly. Where Deng really needed active Japanese cooperation was on economic reform and on this front the Japanese were much more forthcoming.

The Chinese were actively seeking Japanese cooperation with the Chinese modernisation program. The two countries had concluded a long-term trade agreement in February 1978 that would use Chinese resource exports, especially coal and petroleum, to pay for the import of Japanese industrial plant and technology. During his visit Deng met with business leaders and toured important industrial sites, including a Nissan auto factory, a Japan Steel mill and a Matsushita electronics plant. He expressed appreciation for Japanese industrial and technological achievements and interest in Japanese support for the modernisations program. After touring the Japan Steel plant, Deng asked company president Inayama Yoshihiro to “please help us build an even more advanced steel mill,” in China (Pei 2004, 177; Masuo 2010, 105-106). In fact, the plant became a model for the ambitious Baoshan steel complex near Shanghai, one of the most important projects contracted under the long-term trade agreement. In a press conference Deng explained that “There are many things we can learn from Japan. We should borrow Japanese technology and perhaps even Japanese capital,” and suggested that the government would consider a request for Japanese government loans (Pei 2004, 169; ZZWY 2004, 411; Mōri 2006, 99). In his discussions with Fukuda, Deng candidly admitted the economic and technological gap between the two nations and the importance of Japanese aid and support, telling Fukuda, “Even after achieving the Four Modernisations our country will still be poor. At that time Japan will be even more advanced. Therefore, even after the achievement of the Four Modernisations cooperation with Japan will be necessary” (MOFA 1978b, 25; ZZWY 2004, 410).

In contrast to his evasiveness when responding to Deng’s strategic concerns, Fukuda (a former Ministry of Finance bureaucrat) was enthusiastic about economic cooperation. Fukuda defined the importance of the new relationship with China overwhelmingly in economic terms. Fukuda pointed to a basic complementarity between a resource-rich China and a resource-poor Japan looking to diversify its sources of raw materials. Fukuda therefore saw support for the PRC modernisation program as in Japan’s interest. Fukuda said that he felt Japan must help the PRC achieve the Four Modernisations as this would contribute to peace, stability and development in Asia. Fukuda made clear that Japan’s pacifist constitution ruled out any cooperation with the PRC’s military modernisation program but “in any other area,” he told Deng, “we can cooperate with your country’s modernisation, so if there is anything we can do, please don’t hesitate to ask.” Finally, Fukuda told Deng that he was “praying from his heart that China would succeed in quickly realising the Four Modernisations” (MOFA 1978b, 23). Fukuda’s positive attitude and expectations for economic cooperation with the PRC were taken up by the succeeding Ōhira cabinet which would extend the first official aid package to the PRC. This basic policy of Japanese economic support for Chinese modernisation was not impeded by the PRC’s war with Vietnam, preparations for which accelerated after Deng returned to Beijing.

The Road to War Runs through Washington

While Deng was in Tokyo, the Vietnamese were undertaking their own efforts to secure support for their position. On November 3, 1978, on the heels of Deng’s Tokyo visit, the Soviet Union and Vietnam signed a defense treaty, cementing the very Soviet-Vietnamese alliance that Deng had warned about in Japan. Deng then toured Southeast Asia, visiting Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore between November 5th and 14th. Deng made the same anti-Soviet, anti-Vietnamese pitch he had made to Fukuda and urged the nations of Southeast Asia to stand firm in resisting an imminent Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia. As in Japan, Deng found most leaders rather non-committal, except for the Thais, who secretly agreed to allow the PRC to supply the Khmer Rouge through Thailand in exchange for an end to PRC support for the Thai Communist Party (Vogel 2011, 283-291; Goscha 2006, 178).

Deng’s most important diplomatic offensive, however, was a push to normalise relations with the United States. A breakthrough in relations with the United States would deter Soviet intervention in any war with Vietnam as well as open access to American technology and capital for the pursuit of the Four Modernisations (Zhang 2010, 15-17). Progress on normalisation, however, had stalled after Nixon’s visit. The main sticking point was Taiwan. The PRC leadership insisted the United States follow what they called the Japan model of normalisation. Like Japan in 1972, the United States would have to sever diplomatic relations with the Republic of China as a prerequisite for normalisation (although unofficial economic, cultural and personal exchanges would continue). Although Nixon and Kissinger had early on agreed in principle to a similar process, Nixon and his successors balked at incurring the domestic political opposition that would come from abandoning the defense of Taiwan (Fardella 2009, 547-549).

In his efforts to revive the normalisation process, Deng found the administration of Jimmy Carter an initially somewhat difficult partner. The president evinced interest in normalisation but early on was distracted by efforts to steer the Panama Canal treaties through Congress and abortive moves to improve relations with Vietnam. There was also considerable disagreement within the administration regarding China policy exemplified by the disagreement between Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, who favoured a more balanced relationship between the USSR and the PRC, and National Security Advisor Zbigniev Brzezinski, who wanted to use improved relations with the PRC to pressure the Soviet Union. Carter, like his predecessors, also feared the political backlash that would come from cutting defense ties to Taiwan. He therefore worked to secure a Chinese commitment to settle the Taiwan issue peacefully. The Chinese, however, remained adamant that the Taiwan issue was a domestic political issue and refused any commitment to peaceful settlement. The turning point was Brzezinski’s May 1978 visit to Beijing during which Brzezinski accepted the Chinese position on Taiwan. Having given up on a Chinese commitment to peaceful settlement, however, Carter now stood firm on continuing American arms sales to Taiwan after normalisation, much to the consternation of Deng and the PRC leadership. In the end, anxious to achieve a breakthrough with the United States in advance of a planned attack on Vietnam, Deng swallowed the continuation of American arms sales to Taiwan, and the normalisation of relations with the United States was announced on December 15, to be effective January 1, 1979 (Fardella 2009; Vogel 2011, 311-333; Bush 2004, 137-144).

As the diplomatic offensive progressed, Deng led preparations for military action against Vietnam. A PLA General Staff meeting on November 23rd discussed limited military action that targeted all Vietnamese installations along the border. In a December 7th meeting of the Central Military Commission, the final decision for war called for a limited, punitive war to “hit back” at Vietnam along the border and orders were issued to the PLA to be ready for war by January 1979. Thus, the Chinese decision for war was made even before the actual Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia on December 25, 1979 (Zhang 2005, 857).

Having made the decision for war and achieved the normalisation of relations with the United States, Deng traveled to Washington in January 1979. In talks with President Carter, Deng made his pitch for military action against Vietnam. Deng laid out his case against the Vietnamese in much the same language he had used with Fukuda in Tokyo, tying Soviet moves in Africa, Iran and Afghanistan to the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, “So we see the situation from Iran to Afghanistan to Vietnam as related. The Soviet Union is attempting to build two positions of strength in the East and in the West linked by the sea. The situation is analogous to a bar-bell” (U.S. Department of State 2013, hereafter FRUS, 747). Deng also offered a rebuke of American policy toward the Soviets: “If one says that one has some disappointments, it is because over a period of some time the U.S.… has not done enough against the dangers of the Soviet Union” (FRUS, 744). Deng assured the president that the PRC did not want war and, in fact, needed an extended period of peace in order to carry out the Four Modernisations. The Soviet Union and Vietnam, however, were bent on war—“We see no possibility of détente” (FRUS, 747). Only what Deng called “down-to-earth” actions could deter the Soviets. Deng called for cooperation between China, the United States, Japan and the countries of Western Europe and ASEAN against the Soviets all across the globe, “Wherever the Soviet Union sticks its fingers, there we must chop them off” (FRUS, 764).

Carter attempted to counter Deng’s charges of US weakness in resisting Soviet expansionism, arguing that Soviet aggressiveness was a sign of increasing isolation rather than strength. Carter specifically cited increasing Sino-Japanese cooperation as evidence of international anti-Soviet solidarity, “We are encouraging the Japanese, within their own prescribed limits, to improve their own defense capability. We are pleased with your Peace and Friendship Treaty with Japan” (FRUS, 765). Carter also attempted to dissuade Deng from military action against Vietnam. Carter read a personal letter to Deng in their meeting on January 30, 1979. The president warned about the danger of escalation, of becoming bogged down in Vietnam and of the unlikely prospects for success of either forcing the Vietnamese out of Cambodia or saving the Khmer Rouge regime. Most importantly, Carter stressed the likely damage to the PRC’s international reputation that could result from military action. Carter pointed out that world opinion was already overwhelming in condemnation of the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia and that the emerging cooperative relationship between the United States and the PRC could suffer if Chinese intervention raised questions in the United States about PRC military intentions toward Taiwan (FRUS, 770). Carter’s objections, however, were not public; they were expressed only privately. Nor did Carter’s protestations have any appreciable impact on Deng’s plans. In response to Carter’s letter Deng merely repeated his position and said that, “The Chinese will study the U.S. views very carefully. Deng will also discuss this matter with [Japanese Prime Minister] Ōhira, though he expects Ōhira’s views to be similar to the President’s” (FRUS, 772). Thus, Deng left Washington for Tokyo with the American president resigned to his plans.

Deng’s Second Visit to Tokyo, February 1979

On February 7, 1979, returning to Beijing from his talks with Carter, Deng stopped in Tokyo where he met with the new Japanese prime minister, Ōhira Masayoshi, as well as with former prime ministers Fukuda and Tanaka. Deng’s brief stopover (he was in Japan for only 43 hours) was given over entirely to making his case for Japanese support in his war against Vietnam. Deng pulled out all the Cold War rhetorical stops to convince the Japanese of the world-wide threat of Soviet aggression. Deng conjured a monolithic Soviet expansionism in which Vietnam was completely subservient to Soviet directives and warned that appeasement would unleash a domino scenario in which the fall of Laos and Cambodia would result in Soviet domination of Southeast Asia. Chinese military action was therefore necessary was to “sanction” (seisai) and “punish” (chōbatsu) the Vietnamese for their recklessness (MOFA 1979b, 6-9; Lü and Zhou 2000, 225).

Deng also worked to convince the Japanese that the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia directly threatened Japanese interests. Deng argued that the ultimate Soviet goal in Southeast Asia was control of the straits of Malacca—Japan’s “lifeline” to Middle Eastern oil (MOFA 1979b, 9). Deng expressed appreciation for the Japanese government’s decision to suspend an aid package to Vietnam in the wake of the invasion of Cambodia but urged more active Japanese cooperation with PRC policy against Vietnam including Japanese aid for Cambodia. On the other hand, Deng also repeatedly stressed the limited nature of planned military operations, expressed confidence that the Soviets would not intervene and reassured the Japanese that whatever came of the war, the PRC was prepared to bear these costs on their own (MOFA 1979b, 9, 13-14). These assurances were most likely meant to allay any potential Japanese concerns about the implications of the anti-hegemony clause of the peace and friendship treaty which Deng again was careful not to mention.

Deng made little headway in gaining Japanese support for his positions. Ōhira told Deng that the Japanese government would consider Chinese concerns in dealing with Vietnam and had, in fact, already warned the Vietnamese to solve their disputes peacefully or risk losing Japanese economic assistance. He also repeated Fukuda’s position that Japan would coordinate Indochina policy with the nations of ASEAN. On aid to Cambodia, Deng was turned down flat. Foreign Minister Sonoda Sunao made clear that the Japanese would not aid Cambodia so long as doing so could be seen as support for Pol Pot’s odious Khmer Rouge regime. Former prime ministers Fukuda Takeo and Tanaka Kakuei displayed even less enthusiasm for Deng’s planned war than Ōhira. While Ōhira stood firm against giving any public support to Deng’s venture, overall his response to the planned invasion was even more muted than was President Carter’s. Ōhira apparently made no effort to dissuade Deng from his chosen path. Ōhira merely told Deng that the Japanese government expected the PRC to settle its disputes peacefully, and thanked Deng for his “keen insights” on the international situation (MOFA 1979b, 10, 15). Of course, by this point there was little Ōhira could have done to dissuade Deng even had he been so disposed. More importantly, as we will see, Ōhira himself was keen to establish a foreign policy that more actively contributed to international security, and support for the PRC modernisation program was a cornerstone of this policy.

The War

The war, when it finally came, unfolded largely as the Chinese had planned. On February 17, Chinese troops invaded along the length of the border with the declared intention of teaching the Vietnamese a lesson. There ensued a few weeks (29 days) of heavy fighting during which the Chinese managed to capture the capitals of several border provinces. On March 5th, the PRC declared victory and began a troop withdrawal that was completed on March 16. Despite PRC claims of victory, however, the war was militarily inconclusive and costly, though casualty estimates vary widely (Zhang 2005, 866-867). Most tragically, the war added to the flood of refugees from Southeast Asia.

Much scholarship on the war has revolved around the issue of success or failure, with many early analyses interpreting the war as a strategic failure and military fiasco for the Chinese. Recent studies using Chinese sources, however, suggest that in terms of the Chinese strategic goals of militarily challenging the Soviet-Vietnamese alliance and exposing the Soviet Union as an unreliable ally without getting bogged down in a long war or provoking a significant international backlash, the war must be counted as a qualified success, though the military lessons of the war were much less encouraging for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which was exposed as ill-prepared and uncoordinated (Zhang 2005, 867). In its immediate postwar assessment, the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) came to similar conclusions. MOFA noted that in military terms it was difficult to determine who came out on top. On the one hand, Vietnamese military equipment and installations on the border had been destroyed. On the other hand, PRC military action had not forced the Vietnamese to divert military forces from their occupation of Cambodia, nor did it settle the border dispute. The ministry, however, saw the goals of PRC military action as primarily strategic—to show the Vietnamese and the Soviets that the PRC would use force to oppose the expansion of Soviet influence in Southeast Asia and to expose the Soviet Union as a paper tiger, an unreliable ally—and that these goals had been largely achieved. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs also added a cultural explanation for PRC action, arguing that the invasion stemmed from Chinese offense at the challenge presented by the upstart Vietnamese which “caused the Chinese, who still hold a stubborn Sino-centric mentality, to lose face” (MOFA 1979c, 92).

Ōhira’s Visit to Beijing and the Beginning of Japanese Aid to China, December 1979

The war did not significantly disrupt Japanese policy toward China or derail Sino-Japanese cooperation. In fact, the Japanese response to the war fit in very well with Japanese foreign policy objectives at the time. By the late 1970s, Japanese leaders sought to make an international contribution more commensurate with increasing Japanese capabilities and international expectations. Prime Minister Ōhira, long an advocate for this position, was on a mission to forge a more active foreign policy that would make Japan a more reliable partner of the United States and greater contributor to regional stability and security. During his visit to Washington in May 1979, Ōhira promised strong support for US policy around the world. Although Japan could not offer direct military support, Ōhira pledged to lighten the American burden of regional defense and to make the Japanese islands an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” for the United States in Asia. Support for the Chinese modernisation program was important for maintaining regional stability. Just two months after the Chinese invasion of Vietnam Ōhira told Carter he wanted to extend “help to China’s modernisation efforts” (Digital National Security Archive). The Japanese government had been preparing for an expected aid request from the PRC, one they were eager fulfill. In fact, Ōhira had decided to accept any PRC aid request as early as March 15, 1979, even before the Chinese invasion had ended (Wakatsuki 2011, 121).

The PRC leadership in September 1979 officially requested Japanese ODA. In December, Ōhira visited Beijing and announced the first of a series of economic aid packages to the PRC. The package extended approximately US$200 million in low-interest loans in support of six major infrastructure projects as well as the Japan-China Friendship Hospital in Beijing that would be a symbol of the new relationship (Drifte 2006, 95). Ōhira’s December 7 speech at the Great Hall of the People was broadcast live on Chinese television and radio, an unprecedented opportunity for a foreign leader to address the Chinese people. Ōhira explained the cooperative relationship in the context of the increasingly interdependent international order. The problems of the world, Ōhira contended, could no longer be solved by individual nations. All nations had a responsibility to contribute to global and international problems. Japan and the rest of the world hoped for and supported Chinese modernisation with the expectation that the PRC would make a positive contribution to international society and that a more prosperous China could contribute to a better world (Ōhira 1980, 291-300).

Aid to the Chinese modernisation effort was, therefore, an important part of a new Japanese international activism. It was to be a showcase for a new, cutting-edge, distinctively Japanese foreign policy that contributed to international stability, security and development through aid, trade and investment rather than merely military means—a foreign policy better suited to the emerging age of global interdependence than the militarised policies of the declining superpowers. Over time, ODA became “the most important instrument of Japan’s foreign policy towards China” (Drifte, 94-95). The ODA program not only contributed to China’s rapid economic development, but also provided the Japanese some influence and leverage in their relationship with the PRC and, arguably, helped to manage historical and territorial disputes.

In the end, the diplomatic impact of the PRC’s war in Vietnam was fairly limited. It did not change the basic strategic calculations that underlay the new relationship forged over the course of the decade. Nor did the war appreciably slow the movement toward economic cooperation that supported the relationship for the next decade. The limited diplomatic impact of the war, however, is illustrative of the new Sino-Japanese relationship in which economic concerns had come to predominate over anti-Soviet strategic concerns. It also reflects the basic Japanese strategy of using economic engagement with the PRC to make a distinctly Japanese contribution to international society. If the diplomatic impact of the war was limited, however, the same could not be said for the war’s impact on Japanese perceptions of the PRC.

The Sino-Vietnamese War in Japanese Discourse: Alienation and Triumphalism

The Japanese response to the Sino-Vietnamese War transcended diplomatic concerns. Both the relationship with China and reaction to the wars in Vietnam were intimately bound up with the discourse of national identity in postwar Japan. For many Japanese, especially those on the left, relations with the PRC provided an alternative vision of postwar Japan; one of Asian solidarity and true national independence that contrasted with what many saw as Japan’s isolation from Asia and subordination to a foreign power in the alliance with the United States. An intellectual foundation for an Asianist national identification with China was provided by the China scholar Takeuchi Yoshimi in a seminal 1948 article, “Chinese and Japanese Modernity.” Takeuchi argued that defeat and occupation stemmed from the failure of Japanese modernisation, the root cause of which, in turn, was the lack of a real, independent Japanese national identity that would have allowed the Japanese to resist Western ideologies and establish a uniquely Japanese modernity. Instead, the Japanese possessed only a “slave mentality” that led them to follow the Western powers on the path to imperialist aggression in the prewar period, and submit to American domination in the postwar period. The establishment of an independent, revolutionary China in 1949, in contrast, proved the success of Chinese modernisation; success which was the result of a powerful national consciousness born of resistance to Western imperialist modernity. Takeuchi thus set popular wartime notions of Japanese success versus Chinese failure on their heads and argued that the Chinese provided an important example of how to forge a truly independent Japanese national identity (Takeuchi, 1966).

The American war in Vietnam reinvigorated Asianist conceptions of national identity for a new postwar generation. Thomas Havens (1987), in his study of Japanese involvement with the war called the Vietnam War a “fire across the sea.” It was a war in which the Japanese did not directly participate, but which nevertheless was crucial to Japanese self-perceptions, constituting “ten critical years of self-examination and redefinition of their place in the world” (Havens 1987, 7). For a new generation of Japanese progressives, the war inspired them to identify Japan as an Asian nation allowing them to link their own movements against the war and against the US-Japan security treaty with the larger struggle for national liberation in Asia and to re-interrogate the issue of war responsibility. The journalist Honda Katsuichi wrote popular dispatches from the war which often evoked the similarity between Vietnamese and Japanese village life while laying bare the devastating effects of US military tactics, especially aerial bombing raids, on ordinary Vietnamese villages. It was not difficult for Japanese to identify themselves in the Vietnamese people’s plight (Lie ed., 1993, 15-17, 21-24). Honda was also inspired by his experience in Vietnam to investigate Japanese actions in China during World War II. Honda spent forty days in China in 1971 conducting interviews with surviving victims of Japanese aggression that he published in 1972 as a best-selling book, Journey to China. Honda explicitly tied one’s position on the Vietnam War to the war responsibility debate in Japan, arguing that the only way for Japanese to fulfill their war responsibility was to unite with the Chinese in support of the Vietnamese struggle against the United States (Honda 1972, 89-92).

For Japanese leftists and progressives, therefore, the 1979 war was not just a political or diplomatic catastrophe but an existential challenge to a cherished Asianist discourse of national identity. The dramatic “meltdown of Asian internationalism” in Japan led to a redefinition of national identity reflecting widespread alienation from China and Asian nationalism in general (Goscha 2006).

The Japan Socialist Party (JSP), Japan’s largest and most potent opposition party, had long championed closer relations with the PRC. They had explicitly identified their own movement in Japan for socialism, pacifism and unarmed neutrality with Asian nationalist movements, the Chinese revolution in particular. In the most famous example of this identification, JSP Chairman Asanuma Inejirō in 1959 declared that American imperialism was the common enemy of both the Japanese and Chinese peoples (Database “The World and Japan”). The party also stood with the Chinese in solidarity with what they saw as the Vietnamese people’s struggle for national liberation against American aggression and imperialism. Through all the dramatic changes of the 1970s, the JSP had faithfully maintained that the improvement in Sino-Japanese relations was compatible with this nationalist narrative of Japanese and Asian solidarity in resistance to the United States. The JSP argued that normalisation in 1972 proved the failure of both American Cold War policy toward China and the US-Japan alliance (JSP 1995, 438). The party welcomed the conclusion of the 1978 Japan-China peace treaty and claimed credit for facilitating the agreement (though, in fact, the JSP had played little role in Sino-Japanese relations since the establishment of direct governmental contacts). The party expressed little concern regarding the strategic implications of the anti-hegemony clause, preferring to interpret it as simply a “promise to improve Japan-China relations and strengthen peace in Asia” (JSP 1995, 645-646, 792). Displaying a remarkable ignorance of the strategic concerns behind PRC policy, or perhaps simply wishful thinking, the JSP also claimed the peace treaty would be the final blow to the US-Japan alliance (JSP 1995, 793). In short, the JSP preferred to maintain its faith in Japan-China relations as contributing to Japanese national liberation, regardless of troublesome signs from the PRC leadership that it was now fully supportive of the postwar conservative Japanese political order and had no desire to see the Japanese nation liberated from its alliance with the United States.

The Sino-Vietnamese War, however, finally provoked a rethinking of the role of the PRC in world politics. Although criticism of the PRC was generally rather muted, the JSP officially condemned both the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia and the Chinese invasion of Vietnam. The JSP acknowledged, however, that great powers like China bore a greater responsibility for international conditions and thus the PRC bore a greater share of the blame for the conflict with Vietnam. The party regretted the Chinese invasion, but in a backhanded defense explained that since the world was still governed by the norms of power politics, at times even socialist powers fell into the trap of putting their own national interests ahead of world peace and socialism. The party’s analysis of the war thus recast the PRC as a great power pursuing its own narrow national interests in the world of power politics, rather than the leader of international socialism or sponsor of national liberation (JSP 1986, 1192).

Most telling, however, was a new contrast the JSP drew between Japanese and Chinese socialism. “The JSP,” the party declared, “is a pacifist, democratic socialist party dedicated to unarmed neutrality; [JSP socialism] is different than the socialism in countries established through armed revolution” (JSP 1986, 1192). The JSP differed from the revolutionary parties in the PRC, Vietnam and Soviet Union in that, “our party from its establishment has fought for peace based on the peace constitution… and has fought for world peace. During this time we have always criticised the power politics of socialist countries such as the Soviet invasion Czechoslovakia and have clearly expressed our opposition to Chinese nuclear tests” (JSP 1986, 1192). In previous pronouncements the party had always equated revolutionary socialism and national liberation movements with the world peace movement and claimed that the Japanese peace movement and opposition to the US-Japanese alliance were inseparable from these international movements. The party now repudiated these links. The Chinese or Vietnamese revolutions could no longer be considered models for the socialist or peace movements in Japan. In fact, Japanese socialism was now considered different and implicitly more advanced—more committed to peace, less prone to power politics, less crudely nationalist—than the socialism of the PRC and other Third World revolutionary parties. Peace and socialism were no longer to be found in Asian national independence movements, but in the socialist parties of the democratic countries of Japan and Europe. The Japan Socialist Party turned away from identification with Asian nationalism and toward identification with Western democratic socialist parties.

The other major opposition party, the Japan Communist Party (JCP) had long been at odds with its Chinese counterpart, the two parties having publicly split during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. In fact, the JSP was only just coming around to a view of the PRC that the Japanese Communists had been advancing for more than a decade. Although the JCP did not publicly oppose normalisation or the conclusion of the peace treaty, they had attacked the anti-hegemony clause, denouncing the “hegemonial and great power policies of Peking’s leaders” and their attempts to “draw Japan into an anti-Soviet alliance” (Glaubitz 1995, 154). The Chinese attack on Vietnam predictably provoked vociferous condemnation. All blame for the Indochina problem was placed squarely at the feet of the Chinese—Pol Pot was a puppet of Mao, whose aggression the PRC leadership had encouraged, and the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia was an act of self-defense. The JCP even defended the Vietnamese government against criticism of its treatment of ethnic Chinese in Vietnam, arguing that the exodus of Vietnamese boat people (the vast majority of whom were ethnic Chinese), was orchestrated by the PRC leadership. The JCP also called out those who refused to condemn Chinese actions, including the US and Japanese governments, for aiding and abetting Chinese aggression. The JCP characterised the Chinese withdrawal as a victory for Vietnamese national resistance to Chinese big-power chauvinism and “hegemonism” (JCP 2003, 222-223). While conservative Japanese governments worked to maintain cooperative relations with the PRC, the Japanese Communists took pride in being among the staunchest critics of Chinese power politics. JCP criticism meshed well with increasing criticism from other quarters of the PRC leadership as pursuing a narrow, aggressive nationalist agenda.

It was not only leftist politicians who had to come to grips with the meltdown of Asian internationalism. Oda Makoto was the charismatic leader of Beheiren (Citizens League for Peace in Vietnam), Japan’s most influential anti-Vietnam War organisation. Although Beheiren disbanded in 1974, as the most recognisable leader of the Japanese anti-war movement, Oda was forced to take a position on this newest phase of the war. Oda had long been wary of some of his colleagues’ identification with China. For example, Oda criticised the Asianism of Takeuchi Yoshimi for being too narrow, for basically equating Asia with China and ignoring the diversity within Asia. Oda argued that Asia denoted not just a geographical region or collection of countries, but rather a position in the world political system. Asia, as Oda defined it, was made up of small, poor nations united in resistance to great power domination. For Oda, therefore, the war in Vietnam had always been about the resistance of the Vietnamese people against the American superpower. In this construction, Japan’s identity as an Asian nation came not through association with one particular state like the PRC but, rather, through Japanese support for the struggles of Asian peoples like the Vietnamese against the great powers. The Chinese invasion of Vietnam exposed the PRC as a great power. Therefore, the PRC could not be included in Oda’s vision of Asia as a transnational movement opposed to the superpowers. In fact, by Oda’s definition the PRC was not even a legitimate member of Asia. Rather, the PRC was counted among those great powers, along with the United States and Soviet Union, against which the oppressed nations of Asia were to struggle (Oda 1979, 35-36).

On this basis, Oda was critical of the new relationship developing between Japan and China, including the contemporary discourse of Sino-Japanese “friendship” that supported the relationship. Of course, Oda conceded, friendship was always desirable but simply appealing to friendship and accepting every position of another foreign country ran the risk of making one a tool of that country, and violated the principle of national independence. What Oda sought was not friendship between the Japanese and Chinese states, but rather an association of non-aligned nations that “could not be realised on the basis of ties between states. What is necessary are ties between people that transcend national borders and transcend the framework of the nation-state” (Oda 1979, 36). His thinking reflected the turn away from an Asianist identification with China and especially Chinese nationalism that was characteristic of Japanese progressives at the end of the 1970s.

A similar alienation occurred in academia, long a stronghold of the progressives. Seki Hiroharu, a Tokyo University professor of international politics and former president of the Peace Studies Association of Japan (Nihon Heiwa Gakkai), in a conversation in the magazine Ekonomisuto, explained the war as the result of an anachronistic Chinese nationalism. Seki began by staking out a basically liberal worldview in which economic interdependence and changing international norms were leading the world toward a more peaceful political order. The main threat to this new international order was continued attachment to the ideal of the modern nation-state. According to this conception of international order, the leadership of the PRC represented a special threat. PRC leaders were still trapped in a militant nationalist ideology committed to the maximisation of state power. In the case of the PRC, this pursuit of national power was intensified by a national identity based on a powerful victim mentality. The PRC was undeniably a military and political superpower, yet conceived of itself as a third-world nation that needed continually to engage in a modernist nation-building process in order to protect itself against perceived imperialist aggression. Another discussant, Kugai Saburō, a noted critic of the American war in Vietnam, agreed that the basic problem of international politics was that while in the advanced industrial North people had already begun to think in global terms, those in the Third World and socialist-bloc countries were still stuck in the “old-fashioned” (furukusai) mode of thinking in terms of the nation-state (Seki et al. 1979, 23-28). Similarly, Sakamoto Yoshikazu, Japan’s preeminent pacifist intellectual, argued that the ideology of the Chinese and Vietnamese revolutions had yet to overcome the nineteenth-century nationalist paradigm. Thus, it was to be expected that they would continue to fall into the mistakes of modern nationalist ideologies, including waging wars of aggression (Inagaki 1994, 247-248). Here we have a complete reversal of early postwar evaluations of the PRC and Chinese nationalism associated with scholars like Takeuchi Yoshimi who looked to China as a model for constructing an independent Japanese national identity. No longer an inspiration, Chinese nationalism was now seen as atavistic and dangerous, as threatening to plunge an emerging liberal international order back into a modernist nation-state system governed by military force. Interestingly, this view of the PRC was very similar to that presented by conservatives.

Conservatives, not surprisingly, reveled in the opportunity to use the war to attack their domestic political opponents and construct a triumphalist narrative of national identity of Japanese progress in contrast to the bankruptcy of international socialism and Chinese communism. In a round-table discussion published in the monthly Chūō Kōron in April 1979, the international relations scholar Nagai Yōnosuke, the China scholar Nakajima Mineo, and the scholar of Southeast Asian studies Yano Toru argued that the war proved that, contrary to Japanese leftist dogma, socialist states were more belligerent in interstate conflicts than other states. Nagai argued that Japanese socialist intellectuals had fundamentally misunderstood the nature of socialist states and the PRC regime in particular. Nagai argued that Lenin was heavily influenced by Carl von Clausewitz, whose military theories also significantly influenced classical realism. Lenin applied Clausewitz’s idea of war as an extension of ordinary politics to the international class struggle. Steeped in this Leninist tradition, the PRC followed basically realist tenets in international politics, seeking to maximise state power for the pursuit of state interests and willing to use any means necessary, including violence, to achieve them. In fact, Nagai argued, “China represents the pinnacle of Machiavellianism. In 1972 they were criticising ‘Japanese militarism,’ now they are inviting defense agency officials to Beijing… the Chinese are opportunistic and quick to change their positions, even compared to the Soviet Union. I dare say that China is the least trustworthy and most dangerous country” (Nagai et al. 1979, 79). Nakajima Mineo added that Chinese belligerence was motivated by an obstinate and dangerous nationalism. Nakajima claimed that persistent Sinocentrism at the core of Chinese national identity made PRC leaders arrogant and belligerent. Nakajima also used the war to attack Asian anti-imperialist solidarity as a basis for the construction of national identity in Japan. Nakajima argued that anti-imperialist ideology made newly liberated states more concerned with protecting territorial borders and more belligerent in international conflict than established states (Nagai et al. 1979, 68, 71). Thus, the meltdown of Asian internationalism was inevitable and should come as no surprise.

Many Japanese were particularly disturbed by Deng’s stated war aim to “punish” the Vietnamese. They noted that Japan’s war in China had also begun as a limited war meant to punish the Chinese. Nagai pointed to the similarity between the PRC’s use of terms like “punishment” (chōbatsu) or “sanction” (seisai) and similar terms used by the Japanese political and military leadership to justify aggression and argued that the PRC use of these terms revealed a view of international politics that assumed an international hierarchy in which the PRC leadership reserved the right to punish inferiors (Nagai et al. 1979, 69). For conservatives, the construction of a truly independent Japanese national identity and the fulfillment of Japanese war responsibility required a recognition of the need, and commitment, to resist the aggressive tendencies of the Chinese rather than identification or solidarity with China.

The triumphalist view of a successful Japan and a backward China was only reinforced by the changes in the diplomatic relationship, especially the beginning of economic aid to the PRC which was interpreted as an admission of Chinese failure that reinforced conservative nationalist narratives of Japanese success. Prime Minister Ōhira and his foreign minister Ōkita Saburō, the main architects of the policy of aid to the PRC, saw Japan as the “central engine” of Asian economic development, playing a leadership role similar to that of the United States in the early postwar period (Ōkita 1979, 1091). Japan, as the most developed Asian nation, would lead regional development, including the reconstruction and modernisation of the Chinese economy. The conservative author Etō Jun was one of the first Japanese visitors to the PRC after the signing of the 1978 peace treaty and returned to Japan convinced that China was “twenty or thirty steps behind” Japan, leaving the leadership no choice but “humbly” to turn to Japan for aid and acknowledge his own view of modern Japanese history as one of success:

Of course various things have happened, but the actions of the Japanese nation to this point have not been fundamentally mistaken. This fact is all the more powerfully supported by the extent to which even the aggrieved party has come to recognise it without hesitation or resentment (Etō 1978, 48).


An examination of the Japanese reactions to the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War reveals the interaction between diplomacy and discourse in the transformation of Sino-Japanese relations in the 1970s. The transformation was driven by Cold War strategic concerns, especially Chinese and American concerns about the Soviet Union, but also by a Japanese desire to play a more important international role commensurate with Japanese economic power. The cooperative Sino-Japanese relationship that emerged by the end of the decade was thus cemented by the confluence of strategic and economic interests, and built upon Japanese aid in support of Chinese modernisation efforts. The transformation of the diplomatic relationship in the 1970s, however, also changed the Japanese discourse on relations with China, reflecting changed perceptions of the PRC and the changed place of China in constructions of Japanese national identity, often in ways that in the long-term could undermine the cooperative diplomatic relationship.

PRC moves to cooperate with conservative governments in Japan and the United States undermined a progressive and leftist narrative that portrayed the PRC as an advanced, modern state that was a model of national independence and an inspiration for their own nationalist struggle against the postwar Japanese political order and the US-Japan security treaty. The war with Vietnam, a nation that had become important in Japanese discourse as a symbol of Asian resistance to American domination, accelerated the alienation of progressives and leftists from identification with the PRC and Chinese nationalism. While Japanese progressives and PRC leaders could still find themselves on the same side of certain issues, in other issues, such as controversies over historical revisionism in Japanese textbooks or visits to the Yasukuni shrine, the alienation of the Japanese left dissipated an important source of support for closer relations with the PRC.

At the same time, PRC policies became a support for Japanese government policies and for conservative triumphalist narratives of an advanced, successful Japan playing a regional leadership role by aiding a backward China. Despite their differences, progressives and leftists alienated by the war and triumphalist conservatives for whom the war proved the failure of their opponents’ worldview came to remarkably similar views of the PRC.  Across the political spectrum, Japanese came to see the PRC as a typical great power driven to aggression by the realist concern for the maximisation of state power and an atavistic, potentially dangerous nationalism. The image that emerged after 1979 was one of the PRC as out of step with the norms of a new postmodern, globalised international community of which Japan was an important member. This was a discourse that could easily be transformed into one of a China threat to Japanese interests and national identity when strategic and economic circumstances changed.

If the 1970s and 1980s constitute a golden age of friendly Sino-Japanese relations, the attitudes that would undermine that friendship in the last decade of the century were also forged in the changing strategic environment of the 1970s and are visible in Japanese reactions to the Sino-Vietnamese War.


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[1] On Japan’s involvement in the Vietnam War see, Thomas R. Havens, Fire Across the Sea: The Vietnam War and Japan, 1965-1975, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987). For accounts of the Sino-Vietnamese war itself, see Nayan Chanda, Brother Enemy: The War After the War, (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986); King C. Chen, China’s War with Vietnam, 1979, (Stanford Hoover Institution Press, 1987); Zhang Xiaoming, “China’s War with Vietnam: A Reassessment,” China Quarterly, 184,(December, 2005), 185-874; Odd Arne Westad and Sopie Quinn-Judge, eds., The Third Indochina War: Conflict between China, Vietnam and Cambodia, 1972-79, (New York: Routledge, 2006); and Zhang Xiaoming, “Deng Xiaoping and China’s Decision to go to War with Vietnam,” Journal of Cold War Studies, 12/3 (Summer 2010), 3-29.

[2] The account of Sino-Japanese diplomatic statements on the Vietnam problem in this paper is based mainly on Japanese sources, especially the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs records of Deng Xiaoping’s visits to Japan in October 1978 and February 1979. Chinese histories that treat Deng’s visits tend to focus on the establishment of friendly relations and the development of economic cooperation and on these issues are very close to what is included in the Japanese archival record. They generally downplay treatment of relations with the Soviet Union and have little or nothing to say about the Vietnam issue.

About the Author

Robert Hoppens is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Texas Pan American where he teaches courses in modern Japanese, Chinese and world history.

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