Collaborative projects are embedded in the current China-Japan relationship. They are endorsed at the highest levels of government; they involve businesses, research institutes, universities and think tanks; and they are on the increase. In other words, balancing off the deep distrust that exists between the two sides are equally important pragmatic considerations related to business, trade, and technology transfer. China is an economic powerhouse, second only to the U.S. in the global GDP rankings, and expected to continue to grow at a robust 7-8% annually.  Yet China remains far poorer than Japan; it is in the anomalous position of being both a major world power and a developing country, facing huge challenges in its push for massive urbanization.

Japan, plagued by decades of slow growth, overtaken by China as number two in overall (not  per capita) GDP terms, is labeled these days as stagnant, in decline. But Japan is a mature, technologically advanced society boasting a high standard of living, low income inequality (lower than either the United States or China where the gap is widening), universal health care, and consistent enforcement of the rule of law, both in business and for citizen protection. While Japan at 24th is well behind the U.S. at 4th in the World Bank’s oft-cited “ease of doing business” rankings for 2013, China is 91st.  Transparency International’s most recent (2012) Corruption Perceptions Index, in which #1 is perceived as the least corrupt country (Denmark/Finland/NewZealand), shows Japan at 17, the U.S. at 19 and China at 80 of the 176 countries surveyed. When it comes to politics, much is made of the rapid turnover of Japanese Prime Ministers as seeming evidence of systemic weakness, but Japan has nearly 70 years of free and fair elections, transparent and vigorous policy debates in parliament (the Diet), and a free press. Japan, after all, is a democracy, the oldest in East Asia.

Whether it’s the comfortable lifestyle, low tuition, job prospects or simply being closer to home Japan over the last decade has been a draw for Chinese youth seeking overseas study opportunities. The most recent (2012) survey shows 86,000 Chinese students enrolled at Japanese institutions of higher education with another 15,000 in language study programs. The current rise in anti-Japanese sentiment among Chinese may cause these figures to drop, as they did in the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, though in that case only by 1.4%.  But the key determinant of future numbers will be a practical consideration: employment. Japanese firms in recent years have made an all-out push to recruit Chinese graduates of Japanese schools, the better to do business in Asia. Chinese are attracted by the high quality training programs offered by Japanese companies. Typically about a third of Chinese graduating seniors have found jobs with Japanese firms either in Japan or China. As long as there is no shift in hiring preferences among Japanese employers—reportedly Brazilian applicants were favored over Chinese at a recent jobs fair—the flow of Chinese students to Japan should remain stable.

Partnership between China and Japan is as much part of today’s reality as political friction. But it operates quietly in different forms, scattered through different sectors, and is given little public notice. Top leaders on both sides should openly affirm their common interests and the mutual gains to be had from building on existing cooperative ventures—and the dangers of not doing so.  People in the media must be encouraged to do the hard work of tracking collaborative activities across the board, not simply the easy reporting of fighting words and possible conflict.

China and Japan have chosen engagement over confrontation before in their modern history. At the turn of the last century thousands of Chinese students flocked to Japan to learn the lessons of modernity while hundreds of Japanese advisers in education, law and technical fields went to work in China on contracts financed by the Chinese.  Japan’s soft power initiative was well received by the Chinese for a decade and more with positive, lasting results. Culture and geography reinforced the notion of a special relationship, but recognition of common regional interests was the real driver of closer ties. The concept of a Pacific community is again being talked about in Asian forums, and for some of the same reasons. What Japanese politician Konoe Atsumaro had to say about regionalism in 1898—“Asians alone should have the right to solve Asia’s problems”—sounds remarkably like China’s chief diplomat Yang Jiechi speaking in 2013, “Asia-Pacific issues should be discussed and dealt with by the countries of the region themselves…” Selling the Chinese public these days on the idea of increased cooperation with Japan will require time and patience. Popular anger over Japanese wartime atrocities is deeply engrained in the Chinese psyche. But the case for partnership is a strong one. The Chinese and Japanese economies are highly interdependent. And, for all their present prosperity, China and Japan face serious challenges over the next decades, including a looming regional crisis over energy shortfalls and environmental degradation. For the sake of continued economic growth and stability it is urgent that both sides replace bellicose talk with a commitment to clear-eyed pragmatism and sustained cooperation.