Fri, May 16, 2008 - Page 8 News List

Was the Hu Japan visit the start of better ties?

By Tsai Zheng-jia 蔡增家

Giving old buildings a “facelift” by redoing the facade rather than demolishing and rebuilding them has become a fashion of sorts. The result looks like a brand new building, but the old structure remains unchanged.

Chinese President Hu Jintao’s (胡錦濤) five-day “spring warmth” visit to Japan was just such a facelift to the always tense Sino-Japanese relationship. He did not seek resolutions to fundamental problems or existing obstacles in the relationship. Rather, the two countries merely signed their fourth communique on a strategic partnership, pretending that all is well, while in reality the relationship remains turbulent and filled with controversy.

Ever since former Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi stepped down in 2006, a strange top-down phenomenon has occurred in Sino-Japanese relations: Leaders are enthusiastic about the improvements in the relationship, officials are suspicious of it and the public remains cold toward it.

Nevertheless, through their three-stage “ice-breaking,” “thawing” and “spring warmth” visits, the leaderships of the two countries have suddenly become friends, pushing Sino-Japanese relations to new heights. It seems the two leaderships have seen a reversal of their relationship as a shared goal and that they are now eager to maintain warmer relations. For example, former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe made paying China an ice-breaking visit his first political after taking office and the fourth communique seems to have become the last career achievement of pro-China Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda.

However, their enthusiasm cannot move the public. In comparison with such enthusiasm, officials on both sides are suspicious of each other because of unresolved controversies over Japan’s history textbooks and the oil fields in the East China Sea. The incident with poisoned Chinese dumplings sold to Japan has also damaged the relationship between China and Japan.

In the past, the pro-China faction in the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs was biased in favor of China and acted like the Red Guard in their promotion of Sino-Japanese relations. From disputes over Japan’s history textbooks to visits by politicians to the Yasukuni shrine, they repeatedly spoke for China and established a joint history textbook committee and an oil field exploitation task force with their Chinese counterparts. They deeply believed that Sino-Japanese relations were going to improve.

However, in the past two years, disagreements over history and obstacles in oil field exploitation have caused doubts as officials on both sides became less optimistic there would be any improvements in the overall relationship as long as issues regarding fundamental interests remain unresolved.

Since the 1990s, despite the fact that Sino-Japanese relations have repeatedly swung back and forth between conflict and cooperation, private sector exchanges continued. But these exchanges have gradually cooled down following several large-scale anti-Japan demonstrations in China in 2005. As a result, the Japanese public developed a sense of insecurity about China and the “cold front” reached a climax when the poisoned dumplings scandal hit, sparking distrust in Chinese products.

Hu’s visit to Japan was the result of mutual political interests. Hu wanted to sign the communique on the strategic partnership to smooth-out any political wrinkles before the Olympic Games in Beijing, while Fukuda wanted to boost his popularity.

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