The recent revival of Sino-Japanese animosity, triggered by bitter disputes over history, territory and maritime natural resources, has the potential not only to derail China’s self-proclaimed goal of a “peaceful rise” but to disrupt healthy momentum towards east Asian economic integration. Obviously, Beijing and Tokyo must share the blame for the deterioration of their ties. The repeated visits by Junichiro Koizumi, Japanese prime minister, to the Yasukuni shrine, which honours Japan’s war dead (and 14 class A war criminals) are ill advised and provocative. Beijing’s failure to curb violent anti-Japanese demonstrations in April this year and its habitual exploitation of Japan’s war guilt have also poisoned the atmosphere of bilateral ties.

But a more disturbing development in Sino-Japanese relations is the rapidly growing mutual enmity of ordinary people in both countries. In Japan, the cabinet office’s poll in 2004 found only 38 per cent of the public professed an “affinity” towards China, an all-time low since the poll began in 1978. In a survey conducted this month by Yomiuri Shimbun, a big Japanese daily newspaper, and Gallup, the US polling organisation, 72 per cent of the Japanese respondents said they did not trust China (in comparison, 53 per cent of the Americans polled expressed distrust of China). Negative Japanese perceptions of China stem from hostility towards China’s authoritarian political system, fear of China’s military and economic power and resentment of ­Beijing-sanctioned anti-Japanese ­propaganda.

Chinese antipathy towards Japan was strong even before the recent downturn in relations. In popular imagination, Japan looms large as an unfriendly neighbour. A poll of nearly 700 residents of Beijing in 1999 showed that two-thirds felt Japan harboured hostile intentions towards China’s vital interests and had the military and/or economic means to threaten China. Recent incidents have only exacerbated anti-Japanese sentiments. When 4,000 Chinese citizens were polled in June this year, 71 per cent did not feel an affinity towards Japan.

Even more troubling is the pessimism shared by majorities in both countries about the future direction of relations. According to a poll released in August 2005 by Japanese and Chinese researchers, 73 per cent of the Japanese public and 56 per cent of the Chinese respondents feared relations would deteriorate further or were uncertain about the future of bilateral ties. Chinese college students were even less optimistic: 81 per cent were uncertain or pessimistic about the future of Sino-Japanese relations.

What makes such pessimism worse is that in China an overwhelming majority of the public – 93 per cent in the August poll – believed Japan should take most or all of the responsibility. The assignment of blame by the Japanese public appeared to be more even-handed. One poll released in August found about half the respondents believed neither side was solely responsible for the tense relations.

To a considerable degree, the policies and public posturing of Japanese and Chinese leaders have fuelled national animosity. Beijing’s “patriotic education campaigns” – waged to strengthen the Chinese Communist party’s nationalist credentials – have consistently cast Japan in a villainous light. For example, more than 30 television series on Japan’s wartime aggression were produced in China this year to ­commemorate the 60th anniversary of the end of the second world war. ­Inevitably, such obsession with the past can only create a distorted image of Japan.

Although the Japanese government has not engaged in similarly crude propaganda, Mr Koizumi has capitalised on anti-Chinese sentiments among ordinary Japanese in his confrontation with Beijing over the issue of the shrine visits. By presenting these visits as a symbol of Japan’s national sovereignty and dignity, Mr Koizumi has not only inflated the political stakes but also made it nearly impossible to acknowledge China’s legitimate concerns about the visits.

All this has created a vicious cycle: shortsighted policies pursued by both governments stoke public animosities, which motivate the national leaders to adopt even more self-righteous postures, fuelling anger and hopelessness in both countries. To stop the downward spiral, Beijing and Tokyo must cease their public posturing. Ironically, deep pessimism means public expectations for improvement are low and a small gesture of goodwill could have a substantial impact. But efforts to improve relations will succeed only if both sides simultaneously reach out to the other.

For a start, the Japanese government should denounce the two recently published popular comic books Introduction to China and Hating the Korean Wave, whose racist portrayal of China and South Korea is deeply offensive. The Chinese government should suspend the screening and broadcasting of movies about the Japanese invasion of China in the 1930s. Even if the two sides can do nothing about the shrine visits for now, these small steps would demonstrate that they are not prisoners of their own rhetoric.

The writers are researchers at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington

Originally published in the Financial Times, December 21, 2005.