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After a period of diplomatic rancor earlier in the decade, Japan and China have demonstrablyimproved their bilateral relationship since 2006. Sino-Japanese relations over the past ten yearshave followed a remarkable trajectory: from a disastrous Japan visit by former Chinese PresidentJiang Zemin in 1998 to Hu Jintao’s well-orchestrated and highly successful visit to Tokyo in May2008. The emerging détente has expanded to include breakthrough agreements on territorialdisputes, various high-level exchanges, and reciprocal port calls by naval vessels.

Despite the rollercoaster of political and diplomatic ties, other aspects of the relationship haveremained relatively consistent. China-Japan economic interdependence has grown as trade andinvestment flows have surged over the past decade. China-Japan economic ties serve as an anchorfor the overall bilateral relationship, and the two nations and have become the key players in arobust East Asian trade and investment network.

On the other hand, military strategists in each country remain wary of the other’s motives. Beijingis suspicious of any moves that hint at Japan developing a more assertive and active securityposture, and Japanese defense planners note with alarm China’s burgeoning militarymodernization. Japanese defense documents have publicly declared their concern with Beijing’slack of transparency and apparently aggressive military spending over the past several years. Inaddition, occasional incursions by Chinese vessels into Japan’s territorial waters have kepttension high at times despite the overall improving relations.

The détente, pursued with vigor by leaders in both Beijing and Tokyo, follows an exceedinglytense period in the relationship under former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi (2001-2006). Koizumi’s annual visits to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japan’s wardead—including several convicted Class A war criminals—particularly rankled Beijing. Thevisits, together with changes to Japanese history textbooks that critics claim whitewash Japan’swartime behavior, led to large, sometimes violent anti-Japan protests in Chinese cities thatdamaged Japanese diplomatic posts.

Since 2006, political leaders on both sides—even those whose rhetoric was the most vehement—appear to have concluded that political accommodation is the best course, at least temporarily.The fact that this trend has survived several political transitions in Tokyo is particularlypromising. Many analysts contend that the short-to medium-term outlook is remarkably stable,but acknowledge that fundamental distrust and disagreements over history could threaten ties inthe longer term. In short, it appears that these disputes have created a firm ceiling for Chinese-Japanese relations; the question is if this recent détente points to the establishment of a new,higher floor.

The durability of the recent détente could have significant implications for U.S. interests. U.S.interests in the region are generally well served by pragmatic Sino-Japanese accommodation.Equanimity in the Tokyo-Beijing relationship not only fosters stability and prosperity, but alsoallows the United States to avoid choosing sides on delicate issues, particularly those related tohistory. During the tension of the Koizumi years, U.S. officials voiced fears—both publicly andprivately—that the discord was harmful to regional stability. Multilateral efforts such as the Six-Party Talks on North Korea’s nuclear program can be complicated by acute bilateral tensionamong the participants.

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