Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's visit to China on Sunday sets a number of firsts. It is the first official visit by a Japanese prime minister to China in five years; it is the first overseas visit by Abe since he assumed office last month other than the US, Japan's key ally; and it is the first time that an official visit was arranged in such a speedy fashion.
Abe's visit took place against the backgrounds of an escalating nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula as Pyongyang declared the intention to conduct a nuclear test in the near future, and the deepest freeze in Sino-Japanese relations in the 34 years since the two countries normalized relations.
The Chinese leadership accorded Abe the highest protocol treatment, with the top three leaders meeting him. Chinese President Hu Jintao (
Abe's visit breaks the free fall in bilateral relations during former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi's tenure when summit meetings were suspended over Koizumi's visits to the controversial Yasukuni shrine that houses Class A war criminals. While Abe has largely dodged the question of whether he has visited or will visit the shrine during his term in office, he has acknowledged the political sensitivity of the issue and promised to act appropriately.
Indeed, one of the most difficult tasks for Abe is how to deal with Koizumi's legacy on relations with Asian countries. While Koizumi has been instrumental and audacious in bringing domestic reform that may have a positive long-term impact on the economy, the same can hardly be said of his diplomacy.
He put too much weight on Japan's relationship with the US, with perhaps a wrong conviction that as long as Washington and Tokyo are on good terms, everything else would not matter that much. He forgot that the US has its own strategic interests.
Perhaps the most harmful thing to the Japanese relationship with neighboring countries -- China and South Korea in particular -- is that Koizumi put his ego ahead of national interests. This harmed Japan in the long term and has already undone many of the good things that Tokyo, through "soft power," has done for the international community.
Koizumi's inflexibility created big obstacles on a range of issues important to Japan: such as permanent membership of the UN Security Council; how Japan's pursuit of a "normal country" will be perceived by others; aid to developing countries; its contribution to peacekeeping but its attempt to whitewash history; the Yasukuni shrine and remilitarization.
Beijing has placed much hope in the Abe government to break the deadlock in the estranged bilateral relationship; this was clearly reflected in its willingness to play host to Abe at such short notice and during an important Chinese Communist Party plenum.
But the visit is merely a beginning for the mending of fences, because challenges lie ahead for Beijing and Tokyo. They have to deal with mutual suspicion and distrust, historical animosity, territorial disputes and ongoing structural changes that are re-shaping East Asia.
Indeed, despite growing trade, investment and other socioeconomic ties between China and Japan, the level of mutual understanding and trust remains low. Economic interdependence between the two has continued to deepen, with bilateral trade reaching close to US$200 billion annually. More than 30,000 Japanese businesses have set up factories in China, accounting for 10 million jobs. There are more than 300 pairs of sister cities, and every week more than 500 flights connect the two countries, moving thousands of tourists and businesspeople.