Sino-Japanese Relations

October 18, 2016

Bilateral relations between China and Japan have historically been positive, yet the two countries have formed a situation of mutual distrust regarding both strategic and moral issues. Shi Chen discusses the reasons for the “locked” status of Sino-Japanese relations in research originally presented at The Asian Conference on Asian Studies 2015.

A Brief Background of Sino-Japanese Relations with Mutual Distrust

Having inevitably been geographic neighbours for thousands of years, the two giants in East Asia – China and Japan – continue harvesting bittersweet fruits from their bilateral relations. For most of their history, bilateral relations between China and Japan are considered to have been positive. Though there has not been a mature international society or diplomatic relationship, the two countries are connected to some extent. Cultural exchanges and communications were supposed to have been the most significant interaction in the relations. Since China’s science, technology and even culture of China was comparatively advanced over a long period since ancient times, the major pattern of communication between China and Japan was that of Japan sending students and envoys to China to acquire various kinds of knowledge. In this way, it would be reasonable to see that these two states with close culture – such as the use of Chinese characters in Japanese language, and styles of architecture – could share a harmonious relationship. There are also different arguments regarding the ways in which China and Japan could maintain peaceful relations with each other. Due to the lack of effective transportation and information, the interactions between different states were quite limited so that disputes and wars could not easily take place.

“It is a worrying fact that the two most powerful actors in East Asia are experiencing an unstable relationship, with disputes and conflicts of interests.”

The pure exchanges and communications between the two countries had changed into semi-colonial invasion and lagging China by a modern Japan from the end of the nineteenth century. In the beginning of its imperial era, Japan had achieved many of its goals of national interests in China, as well as other Western states. The rise of Japanese militarism was then followed by the overall war between Japan and China as a part of World War II, which created a series of problems affecting bilateral relations up to now. The war led to millions of deaths and injuries in both countries and ruined the process of modernization. Moreover, the confrontation between the communist and capitalist camps made timely reconciliation impossible as the two countries got involved in different ideological groups. It was not until 1972 that China and Japan finally realized the normalization of official relationships – most of which is owed to the re-engagement between China and the United States.

However, the trust between China and Japan was not stable, and political relations between China and Japan have been controversial for several decades. The status of the possible rivalry between the two states has not transformed into mature friendship or more cooperative relations, even since the end of the Cold War. It is a worrying fact that the two most powerful actors in East Asia are experiencing an unstable relationship, with disputes and conflicts of interests.

Differing from the situations between European states, such as France and Germany after World War II, the bilateral relationship between China and Japan has not been as smooth. After the downfall of the Soviet Union, fiercer frictions around problems left unsettled during the normalization process were observed. The disputes on historical legacies soon emerged as obstacles to bilateral relations. With the growth of China’s economic and military power, the Sino-Japanese relationship in the beginning of the twenty-first century has witnessed a wider scope of problems including both historical legacies and the strategic confrontations or competitions. Series of disputes in the Sino-Japanese relations occur occasionally within the tough attempts at cooperation, which could be interpreted as a lack of bilateral trust between China and Japan.

Theoretical Discussion on Trust/Distrust in International Relations

There have always been academic debates on the theories of trust and distrust in international relations. There are two approaches to trust including both the interest-oriented and morality-oriented ways of understanding the notion. Both Eric M. Uslaner and Brian C. Rathbun have introduced “strategic trust” and “moralistic trust”. I would to some extent agree with the adaption of these ideas in Sino-Japanese relations – with some modifications and rejections. In terms of the trust/distrust between China and Japan, “strategic trust on strategic issues” and “morally and politically trustworthy” would be the two approaches.

Strategic trust is a kind of judgement on the reduction of the possibility that others may harm the other’s interests, building towards the “double win” of a cooperative relationship. On the contrary, strategic distrust would turn into concern about suffering damaged interests. It is more likely to be within the realist view of the world of anarchy, that every single participant would have to be nervous with others in consideration of their own security. The definition of moral trust here would be the judgements of normal values on whether another state tends to follow international laws and principles in international relations.

One of the most important theoretical frameworks would be that strategic and moral trust/distrust could be interpreted as strategic calculations driven by rationality of states versus normative values in international relations.

By distinguishing between the terms “norms” and “rational choice”, the thesis is using the narrative definition of them. Norms refers to normative assumptions and related behaviours, or what can be called moral norms. The rational choice assumption refers to the rationality of non-moral factors among states, which means that countries would act in certain ways to grasp the benefits of cooperation among them. Exploring whether trust complies with any characteristics of the two options will identify the way in which trust works in international relations.

As Kacowicz (2005, p. 18) cites McElroy (1992, p. 31), “a moral norm can be defined as a behavioural prescription that is universal in the claims it makes and that involves a view of the actors’ own interest, but from the point of view of the others’ interests.” In international relations, this would be the issue on whether countries would place the interests of others at a crucial place. The definition of trust from Hardin and other scholars might have a similar essence — that trust means that countries believe that their national interests will not be harmed by others within international relations. Though this is a generalized definition, there is consistency between two notions.

The moral norms in international relations represent the good wills of interstate behaviours. Trusting others in their nature, or even as Uslaner (2002) argues, holding the belief that other states should be trusted is the activity that obeys the moral norms and in correspondence with the internal quality of “oughtness”. (Finnemore & Sikkink, 1998, p. 891) Hence, this certain kind of trust could be regarded as a moral norm. However, the political fact in international relations (or to be more optimistic, in the international society) shows that no essential institutions actually could support the moral requirement, though following these principles might have been accepted as a universal value. The competitions of national interests highlight the significance of the other kind of trust and rationality within it.

“If moral norms and moral trust are irrational, does it mean that trust would not exist between states?”

As stated above, the thesis suggests that the rationality of countries will play an important role in international relations. If moral norms and moral trust are irrational, does it mean that trust would not exist between states? It could hardly say no on this question that trust could also be a rational choice for countries. The controversy lies in the gap between the sources of trust—moral motivation and information-based motivation. A country would trust another in international affairs according to the information it possesses. Trusting others under this circumstance would be beneficial due to its characteristics of rationality. This is what will be discussed in the following sections as strategic trust – also mentioned by Uslaner (2001, 2002) and Rathbun (2009). One simple case of this kind of trust is that if a country trusts one of its neighbour states because it has enough empirical evidence to prove the other’s harmless attitude and goals, the cost of military spending on the boundary will be reduced. In this way, trust might also be the result of rationality. Therefore, it will be important to understand how international relations theories see the sources of trust in terms of normative behaviours and rationality.

The basic hypothesis of this research would be that both China and Japan would distrust each other on strategic and moral issues. At the same time, the two states have different priorities. Japan’s priority would be on the strategic issues of the rise of China as a potential threat. China’s distrust would focus more on the moral issues of history disputes. Japan’s secondary concern would be the moral distrust of China. To be specific, Japan distrusts China’s nature of being a responsible actor in international society. China’s secondary concern would be that Japan’s alliance with the United States and the potential attempt to revive as a military power would become a strategic challenge for China.

“China and Japan have formed a mutual distrust situation in fields of both strategic and moral issues.”

China and Japan have formed a mutual distrust situation in fields of both strategic and moral issues. The source of this “locked” status would be the asymmetries in bilateral distrust, which has formed a vicious circle. Although both states have their own specific issues of distrust in both these fields, they have different focuses and emphasises. From the Chinese perspective, distrust on the moral issues of Japan should be the top concern. For Japan the situation is just the opposite. The most significant trust crisis is distrust on strategic issues. Under this circumstance, the logical evidence of forming the asymmetries should be that both the two states treat their own top concern as the key issue in the bilateral relations and they could hardly trust the other for dozens of reasons (caused by the other), which means their main concerns have not been satisfied; meanwhile, the top concern of the other (country B) seems to be quite “normal” from its own perspective (country A) which does not need to be modified to satisfy country B’s request. Besides, the main focuses of the two states are not at the same level, while the issues on the same level differ from each other in the fields. It can be understood better through the table below.

Case Study on Mutual Strategic and Moral Distrust

There have been cases used to verify the hypothesis on this structure of mutual distrust between China and Japan. For Japan’s part, the strategic distrust could be reflected on the maritime disputes and the moral distrust of China’s international identity. For China’s distrust of Japan, the strategic cases would be on the US-Japan alliance and the moral cases of the Yasukuni Shrine dispute.

In terms of the debate between normative relations and rationality of states, strategic trust and distrust will show its existence in the rational choice and the following foreign policies and actions. As rational actors, the countries will have to consider the existing political realities and make predictions responsible for national interests, including national security. Therefore, if there is either a lack of transparency or clear rivalry activities on the part of the other actor, the uncertainty would lead to distrust and other reactions. On the other hand, both the rationality of states and the approach of following international norms would require states to take actions with lower risks and costs to solve the problems and disputes. Even if a country values the normative actions in international relations, the norm-breaking activities from the other actors would lead to the judgment of distrust. Therefore, the trend of trust and distrust could be identified in official and governmental documents including statements, records of press meetings, speeches, and so on.

How to identify trust and distrust in these cases would be a methodological question. A discourse analysis method is suitable in measuring trust between countries. It would be extremely difficult to reach the materials and procedures behind the stage in the processes of foreign policy making. Therefore, both clear attitudes and behaviours of countries would be the way to approach to the status of trust and distrust. The discourse – no matter the governmental statements or the VIP speeches – would be meaningful as the official position as well as the guidance of foreign policies. The question would be what the standards are for identifying trust and distrust in the discourse. There have been debates on the relationship between cooperation and trust, which have proved that one could not equal the other, while in many cases cooperation could still be regarded as an important sign of trust. In terms of distrust between states, most negative discourse and behaviours could be regarded as distrust between states. What should be taken into consideration carefully is the difference between not trusting and distrust. There is a significant difference between not trusting and distrust, in that distrust refers to the category on the prediction of potential damage on national interest or dignity. At the same time, not trusting might have not reached such a negative level that actors have no positive or negative interactions and neither trust nor distrust would define the relationship. Therefore, qualitative judgment on trust and distrust would rely on the discourse with certain attributes. On the other hand, there will be strong or weak levels of status of trust and distrust. Whether or not the certain discourse is emotionally strong or weak will no doubt help in understanding the levels of trust and distrust between states.

Japan’s Strategic Distrust of China

This paper tries to interpret distrust through explaining the discourse and activities of the two states. There will be quantitative data to verify the hypotheses. In terms of Japan’s strategic distrust of China, I have collected 27 documents (see appendix) published on MOFA of Japan’s website related to Japan-China maritime disputes. The general statistics of distrust discourse used in these documents is shown in the table below. What can be concluded from the statistics would be that Japan clearly distrusts China on strategic issues. The appearance of “distrusting” language, is much more prevalent that “trusting” language (225-12). The most regular usages of discourse are “Topple/change/challenge the status quo/ existing order (by force)” (31 times), “Escalation/escalate” (21 times), “(profoundly/extremely) dangerous” (18 times), “Unilateral/unilaterally” (17 times), “(extremely) provocative actions” (14 times), “(strong) protest” (28 times), “deep concerns” (22 times), and “Cannot/could not accept/ unacceptable” (18 times). A clear status of distrust could be observed through the comparison between distrust and trust discourse (see table below).

Words or phrasesNatureTrust or distrustTimes of appearance
Topple/change/challenge the status quo/ existing order (by force)Description of China’s activitydistrust31
Escalation/escalateDescription of China’s activitydistrust21
(profoundly/extremely) dangerousDescription of China’s activitydistrust18
Unilateral/unilaterallyDescription of China’s activitydistrust17
(extremely) provocative actionsDescription of China’s activitydistrust14
(extremely) regrettableDescription of China’s activitydistrust9
(unduly) infringe the freedomDescription of China’s activitydistrust5
have serious impacts/ serious problemDescription of China’s activitydistrust3
cause unintended consequencesDescription of China’s activitydistrust3
Not transparent/ lacking transparencyDescription of China’s activitydistrust3
have no validityDescription of China’s activitydistrust2
does not follow the instructed proceduresDescription of China’s activitydistrust2
intrusionsDescription of China’s activitydistrust2
extremely damagingDescription of China’s activitydistrust1
lead to an unexpected occurrence of accidentsDescription of China’s activitydistrust1
deeply deplorableDescription of China’s activitydistrust1
incorrect and entirely irrelevantDescription of China’s activitydistrust1
Sub totalDescription of China’s activitydistrust134
Cannot/could not accept/ unacceptableJapan’s attitude/ Description of China’s activitydistrust18
Sub totalJapan’s attitude/ Description of China’s activitydistrust18
(strong) protestJapan’s attitudedistrust28
(deep) concernJapan’s attitudedistrust22
enhance this relationshipJapan’s attitudetrust7
Urge China to revokeJapan’s attitudedistrust9
Request China to fulfill its responsibility/ request a sincere responseJapan’s attitudedistrust5
one of the most important bilateral relationshipsJapan’s attitudetrust4
(strongly) demand the preventionJapan’s attitudedistrust4
will not tolerateJapan’s attitudedistrust1
Have strong doubtsJapan’s attitudedistrust1
we would like China to provide thorough explanationsJapan’s attitudedistrust1
cannot at all accept China’s assertionJapan’s attitudedistrust1
overreactionJapan’s attitudedistrust1
Japan is ready to maintain close communications with China in an effort to ease tensions.Japan’s attitudetrust1
Sub totalJapan’s attitudedistrust73

Japan’s Moral Distrust of China

On the other hand, China distrusts Japan on both strategic and moral issues too. The theoretical framework would be similar to that of Japan’s part with the hypothesis being different – that China is focusing more on moral issues. The moral issues from the Chinese perspective would be the historical disputes. As an example, one of the typical cases would be the Yasukuni Shrine issue.

From China’s perspective, respecting history, especially the history of invading another state, should be a basic normative value in international relations. Since Japan failed to do so, China’s moral distrust was created. China worries about Japan’s ambiguous attitudes toward the history issues, on the assumption that Japan is intentionally avoiding responsibility. Although Japan repeated its attitude of introspection on many occasions, its activities could ruin the words viewed by China. On one hand, the activities of politicians such as the Prime Minister visiting the Yasukuni Shrine and the possibility of abandoning the past Murayama Statement will increase the China’s worries over whether Japan is trying to regain the “glory” of its Empire era. It is reasonable that this possibility would be unacceptable for China, which has always been treating itself as a victim of the war. On the other hand, despite the concern on the Japanese government, the influences on the civil society from the activities are also crucial. The key issue would be that the future generations might have a different understanding of the history of the war. This concern origins from the activities of “whitewashing” the history from the Chinese perspective. Therefore, China’s moral distrust of Japan could be understood as distrust of Japan’s claims on its introspection and a possible future of Japan reviving its militarism.

Let’s take the Yasukuni Shrine case as an example. The last time that Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Yasukuni Shrine was on December 26, 2013. From then to May 2014, there were at least 14 documents recording the speeches of high-level Chinese politicians (including the Foreign Minister, Foreign Ministry Spokesman, Ambassador to Japan, and so on) and a great amount of other documents of lower levels discussing the Yasukuni Shrine issue. According to quantitative calculation, the Chinese side had expressed its distrust of Japan through the usage of diplomatic discourse with very strong emotional expression. Seventy-nine appearances of distrust discourse would prove that the Yasukuni Shrine issue continues to be a core concern for China. Among these words and sentences, “Deny and even whitewash the history of invading others” (10 times), “Challenge international/post-war order” (9 times), “Wrong words and deeds” (6 times), “Create obstacles” (5 times), “Strongly condemn/protest” (5 times), “Challenge the historical conclusions” (4 times), “cause vigilance” (4 times), “firmly oppose” (4 times), “Damage bilateral relations” (4 times) are the most frequently used discourses. There are significant characteristics showing that the discourse from high-level Chinese channels could explain the attitudes towards the Japanese side on historical disputes. Firstly, the essence of history disputes could be interpreted as its judgement that Japan would not follow the normative values of respecting history. Secondly, the amount of appearances is huge. Thirdly, much of the discourse is emotionally strong, which is unusual in diplomatic situations if no serious problems exist. With these characteristics, distrust can be observed.

China’s Strategic Distrust of Japan

There is also an explanation for the deterioration of Sino-Japanese relations from the perspective of China’s strategic distrust of Japan. Although this strategic distrust is not China’s priority, it still exists as a problem. To be specific, China’s strategic calculations on Japan would be on whether Japan is reviving as a military power and/or if it will balance against China with the US-Japan alliance.

For a long period of time after the normalization of bilateral relations in 1972, especially before the twenty-first century, strategic concerns were not the core focus of China in its relationship with Japan. Although the Cold War might have caused tensions between the two former rivalries, the common external threat of the Soviet Union was regarded as the main problem in the regional relations. Therefore, the two states have experienced a “honeymoon” period of stability in bilateral relations. At the same time, based on the rationality of states, the strategic trust/distrust would rely on the rational calculation of whether the other state could be a strategic threat for its own national interests. In this way, it is reasonable that China could have had fewer strategic disputes with Japan in that particular period because there were fewer conflicts of national interests considering the huge gap between the comprehensive national power and goals of the two states.

However, the situation has been quite different in recent years. Firstly, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, there were no common threats for China and Japan, so they might pay more attention to each other – as the two most powerful regional actors. Moreover, the rise of China has greatly changed the comparison of national power in this region. China would have settled on strategic goals that match its national power while Japan would have modified its foreign policies to deal with the rise of China. In this way, the main strategies of Japan, including seeking a position as a normal state and strengthening its alliance with the United States, could cause distrust from China.

There will also be empirical evidence showing that strategic distrust would be a secondary concern for China. On one hand, there are existing discourses and activities of China that show its concerns, including refusing to accept Japan as a permanent member of the UN Security Council in 2005 and upgrading its military force, especially its navy, as a strategic plan. On the other hand, it has to be admitted that the direct and indirect discourses from the Chinese side would be much fewer than the examples of moral distrust.

An Evaluation of the Hypothesis of Asymmetric Mutual Distrust and the “Locked” Sino-Japanese Relations

If we go back to the asymmetric framework of bilateral distrust, we could have several key findings. Firstly, the different core concerns in this structure would lead to “locked” China-Japan relations. This would lead to the basic question of how distrust would shape interstate relations. States, as the main actors in international relations, should always be responsible for national interests. Therefore, it would be extremely difficult for one state to make compromises before its own concerns were dealt with by the other actor. However, in the China-Japan relations case, the a priori concerns of the two states are not in the same fields and not at the same level. Japan’s distrust on strategic issues would not be the “serious problem” for China and China’s distrust on moral issues would not be a core concern for Japan. Both states might not take actions to solve the problems of distrust from the other state without their own concerns being dealt with in the first place. In this way, neither state would tend to take unilateral actions to break the locked relationship.

The other core issue is how the bilateral relations would affect the status of trust/distrust between states. Staying in the status of mutual distrust, the states would tend to be more conservative. When incidents and problems occur in bilateral relations, the relations might worsen because of distrust. At the same time, in negative bilateral relations, the worries and concerns would be “verified” when problems and incidents occur, so the status of distrust would go deeper. Therefore, a vicious circle would be created: every actor wants its own priorities to be handled first while not taking the first step to satisfy those of another state. As the priorities of Japan and China are not at the same level, it would be extremely difficult to find comprehensive solutions to fit the demands of both the states at the same time.

Whether Japan and China could find a way to get rid of this locked relationship and mutual distrust is the question. Although it is extremely difficult to predict what actions the two states would take, there are some facts that are clear to us. Firstly, the second and third largest economies cannot just keep the relations in the current status — they are interdependent and have to cooperate in sustainable economic growth and regional affairs, which would be in the interests of the whole international community. Secondly, the process of unlocking the relationship would be accompanied by the process of building mutual trust. Building trust would be a tough job between states, yet, no doubt, a positive future Sino-Japanese relationship would be based on solving the distrust issues. We can observe that the leaderships of the two states successfully achieved highest-level summits twice in 2015. Although the summits might not be that successful, these communications could help to reduce misreading and misunderstandings. This situation of locked China-Japan relations will last for a long time until the top concerns receive solutions, which seem not to come in the foreseeable future.

Image | US Pacific Fleet


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Documents collected from MOFA and China’s Foreign Ministry website:

Statement by the Minister for Foreign Affairs on the announcement on the “East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone” by the Ministry of National Defense of the People’s Republic of China:

Akitaka Saiki, Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs, lodges protest against Cheng Yonghua, Ambassador of the People’s Republic of China to Japan:

China’s Establishment of an Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea (Protest by Junichi Ihara, Director-General of the Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau, MOFA, to Han Zhigiang, Minister of the Chinese Embassy in Japan):

Telephone Conference between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and US Vice President Joseph R. Biden:

Courtesy Call on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe by US Vice President Joe Biden:

Telephone Conference between Minister for Foreign Affairs Fumio Kishida and US Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy:

Press Conference by Minister for Foreign Affairs Seiji Maehara:

Press Conference by Minister for Foreign Affairs Seiji Maehara:

Mr. Akitaka Saiki, Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs, lodges protest against Cheng Yonghua, Ambassador of the People’s Republic of China to Japan:

Mr. Akitaka Saiki, Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs, lodges protest against Cheng Yonghua, Ambassador of the People’s Republic of China to Japan:

Japan-China Consultations on the East China Sea and Other Matters:

Press Conference by Minister for Foreign Affairs Katsuya Okada:

Press Conference by Minister for Foreign Affairs Fumio Kishida,

Protest lodged by Mr. Chikao Kawai, Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs, to H.E. Cheng Yonghua, Ambassador of the People’s Republic of China to Japan,

Press Conference by Minister for Foreign Affairs Fumio Kishida:

Position Paper: Japan-China Relations Surrounding the Situation of the Senkaku Islands – In response to China’s Weapons-guiding Radar Lock-on:

Trends in Chinese Government and Other Vessels in the Waters Surrounding the Senkaku Islands, and Japan’s Response – Records of Intrusions of Chinese Government and Other Vessels into Japan’s Territorial Sea:

Position Paper: Japan-China Relations Surrounding the Situation of the Senkaku Islands:

Position Paper: Japan-China Relations Surrounding the Situation of the Senkaku Islands – In response to China’s Airspace Incursion:

Japan-China Relations at a Crossroads:

Statements made by H.E. Mr. Kazuo Kodama, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, Deputy Permanent Representative of Japan to the UN in exercise of the right of reply, following the statement made by H.E. Mr. Yang Jiechi, Minister for Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, at the General Debate of the 67th Session of the UN General Assembly on 27 September, 2012:

Ambassador to Japan Cheng Yonghua Delivers Speech at Genron NPO of Japan:

Ambassador to Japan Cheng Yonghua’s speech on the “Chinese embassy & Japan-China friendship organizations in 2014 Chinese New Year meeting”:

Press Conference by Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hua Chunying:

Press Conference by Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hua Chunying:

Ambassador to Japan Cheng Yonghua Writes to Japan’s Mainichi Shimbun on the Issue of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Visit to the Yasukuni Shrine:

The speech of Permanent Representative to United Nations, Ambassador Liu Jieyi at the Open Debate “War and its lessons and the search for lasting peace” of the UN Security Council:

Press Conference by Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hong Lei:

Press Conference by Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hong Lei:

Press Conference by Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hua Chunying:

Press Conference by Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hua Chunying:

Press Conference by Foreign Ministry Spokesman Qin Gang:

Yang Jiechi’s speech on Abe’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine:

Wang Yi summoned the Japanese ambassador to launch the strong protest on Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine:

Press Conference by Foreign Ministry Spokesman Qin Gang:

Speech of Foreign Ministry Spokesman Qin Gang on Abe’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine:

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About Shi Chen

Shi Chen is currently a doctoral student in politics at the School of Government and International Affairs, Durham University, UK. He graduated with a Bachelors degree from Renmin University of China and got his Masters degree at Durham University, UK. His research interest lies in Japan-China relations and international relations in East Asia, especially the trust between Japan and China.

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