Tue, May 06, 2008 - Page 8 News List

A fresh start for China and Japan?

By Jiang Wenran 姜聞然

Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) will make a high-profile visit to Japan from today to Saturday, making him the second Chinese head of state ever to travel there. The trip is being carefully managed by both countries, and is being watched closely around the world, with good reason: Sino-Japanese relations over the past decade have been turbulent, to say the least.

When Hu’s predecessor, Jiang Zemin (江澤民), traveled to Japan 10 years ago, bilateral relations were deteriorating: China was unhappy with the Japanese government’s refusal to extend the same apology offered to South Korea for past aggression; Japan was worried about a rising China and thus turning more confrontational. The Japanese media’s coverage of the visit was overwhelmingly negative, and it was remembered as a public relations disaster.

Hu succeeded Jiang in 2002, almost as former Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi was coming to power in Japan, and encouraged “New Thinking” in China’s Japan policy, which would entail moving away from historical grievances and promoting better ties.

But, instead of accepting China’s olive branch, Koizumi implemented a more nationalistic agenda, including annual visits to the Yasukuni shrine, which is regarded as a symbol of Japanese militarism by Japan’s neighbors. His hard-line approach isolated Japan and angered China, leading to an outburst of anti-Japanese demonstrations in China in 2005.

But both Japan and China recognize that further tension will serve neither country’s long-term interests. Koizumi’s successors, prime ministers Shinzo Abe and Yasuo Fukuda, have sought to engage China over the past two years, with summits in Beijing and a successful visit by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) to Japan last year.

Hu’s trip is likely to follow the example set by Wen. He will emphasize common strategic interests, highlight mutual economic benefits, generate positive public opinion, and promote further exchanges. Japan is not only one of China’s largest trade and investment partners, it is also the most powerful neighbor with which China wants to be on good terms, partly to showcase that China’s rise is not a threat to Asia and the rest of the world.

Japan, whose economic recovery is attributable largely to its deepening ties with China in recent years, is also eager to demonstrate that it regards China not as a threat but as an opportunity, as least in economic terms. It was 30 years ago that former prime minister Takeo Fukuda, the father of today’s prime minister, signed a Peace and Friendship Treaty with China. The two governments will certainly use Hu’s visit to celebrate the anniversary with new programs designed to enhance bilateral understanding and friendship.

But, unlike three decades ago, when the Japanese regarded China as one of their most favored countries, public opinion in both countries nowadays registers more negative feelings than positive ones. Behind the smiles, the polite interactions and the cautiously worded diplomatic language, strong undercurrents of suspicion remain.

One problem is the disputed waters of the East China Sea. Despite new joint projects in energy efficiency and environmental protection, areas in which China ranks Japan as the best performer among industrialized countries, the two sides remain bitterly divided over these territorial waters, which contain large amounts of oil, gas, and other mineral deposits.

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