China confirmed yesterday that Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso will visit Beijing next week, amid a diplomatic spat over his offering to a controversial war shrine.
The news came one day after China warned bilateral ties could be hurt by Aso’s donation of a plant to the Yasukuni shrine, which honors 2.5 million Japanese war dead and has been a long-time flashpoint between the two nations.
“At the invitation of [Chinese] Premier Wen Jiabao [溫家寶], Japan’s Prime Minister Taro Aso will pay an official visit to China on April 29 and 30,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu (姜瑜) said in a brief statement.
Aso’s offering on Tuesday of a potted evergreen plant to the Tokyo shrine, which also pays homage to 14 top war criminals from World War II, had reignited tensions between the Asian neighbors.
Aso, who took office in September, has avoided going to the shrine in person, unlike former Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, who infuriated China with his annual visits there during his 2001-2006 tenure.
But China has now deemed even offering a plant unacceptable.
The shrine issue is so sensitive because deep resentment remains in China over Japan’s bloody occupation of parts of the country from 1931 to 1945, and how Japanese leaders view that period.
Aso, who also made a donation to the shrine last autumn, has defended his gesture.
“I expressed my appreciation and respect as a Japanese national to the people who sacrificed their precious lives for the country,” Aso told reporters on Tuesday.
China on Thursday said it had expressed to Japan its “serious concern and dissatisfaction” over Aso’s offering.
“[We] reiterated that the question of history is highly sensitive, that any mistaken action by the Japanese side will bring a serious and negative influence to bilateral relations,” Jiang said.
Jiang’s statement yesterday did not refer to the row, with the brief statement posted online mentioning only the dates of his visit.
A Japanese Foreign Ministry official on Thursday said diplomatic ties were not expected to be impacted by Aso’s offering.
“There were times when visits to the shrine affected the relationship with China, but making an offering is different from visiting the shrine,” said the official, who spoke on condition he was not named.
Aso bought the plant with his own money and gave it “in a private capacity,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Takeo Kawamura told a news conference on Wednesday.
Aso’s predecessor, former Japanese prime minister Yasuo Fukuda, had openly opposed visits to the shrine by political leaders, helping mend ties between the two nations that had been damaged during Koizumi’s tenure.