Thu, Nov 18, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Japan, China's relations take another dive

SINKING FEELING Although the two Asian superpowers share a thriving economic partnership, their political ties are straining under disputes from as far back as WWII


Chinese protesters burn Japanese flags during a protest outside the Japanese embassy in Beijing, in this file photo of March 25. The two countries are locked in disputes over World War II history, gas exploration and an incursion by a Chinese nuclear submarine.


Despite a thriving economic partnership, political ties between Japan and China are at their lowest ebb in years. The two countries are locked in disputes over World War II history, natural gas exploration and now a bold incursion by a Chinese nuclear submarine.

The troubles have blocked a meeting between the countries' top leaders since 2001, complicated Northeast Asia's scramble to meet its growing energy needs and threatened to limit the growth of Japan-China business ties.

The startling intrusion by a Chinese nuclear submarine last week into Japanese waters introduced a disturbing military aspect to the tensions between East Asia's two leading powers, putting greater urgency on calls for a repair in relations.

"We should hold talks because we have problems. We are making arrangements," Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said on Tuesday when asked whether he was trying to schedule a summit with Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) at the upcoming Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Santiago, Chile.

The turmoil is a marked contrast to flourishing business relations. Bilateral trade hit a record US$130 billion last year, a 30.3 percent increase from the previous year, and officials expect another record to be set this year.

Political ties, however, have long been rocky between Asia's most populous nation and its biggest economy.

Japan's military conquest of China in the 1930s and 1940s and what the Chinese see as Tokyo's reluctance to atone for its aggression have gnawed for decades at Chinese sensitivities. Japan, in turn, accuses Beijing of using history to browbeat Tokyo into providing aid and political concessions.

The countries have also squabbled over territory and natural resources. Both, for instance, claim a cluster of Japan-controlled East China Sea islands, called the Senkakus in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese. The two are also sparring over Chinese exploration of natural-gas fields near Okinawa that Japan claims could infringe on its exclusive economic zone, and they have competing plans for an oil pipeline from Siberia to East Asia.

The flare-ups illustrate an increasingly competitive relationship.

China's spectacular economic performance has turned it into a global growth engine, and Beijing is eagerly converting that power into diplomatic influence, especially among Southeast Asian countries that Japan had long considered its backyard.

Tokyo nurses fears of being eclipsed, and has eyed with suspicion Beijing's military spending and diplomatic maneuvering. The influential right-wing strongly favors responding with a more robust and assertive Japanese military.

"In the political arena, conservatives aren't really trying to get along with China," said Makoto Iokibe, a political scientist at Kobe University. "People who want to be tough with China feel as if we were about to go to war when something like this -- the submarine, or gas development issues -- happens."

While the incursion did not turn violent, it has come to symbolize the escalating friction between China and Japan in recent years.

The sub was spotted in Japanese territorial waters among islands between Okinawa and Taiwan on Nov. 10, putting Japan's military on alert and prompting the navy to launch a maritime policing operation -- only the second time such an order was issued in 50 years.

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