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China-Japan row threatens five-year warming trend between old foes

The speed with which the fishing boat dispute turned ugly suggests how little has been achieved in China-Japan reconciliation over the past five years, say analysts.

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None of this seemed to count for much when the Japanese coast guard seized a Chinese trawler and Chinese diplomats went into overdrive to win its release.

“For all the diplomatic visits, all the talking, all the naval exchanges, all the trade, the underlying dynamic of conflict in the East China Sea has not changed,” Mr. Harris points out.

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The 'added twist'

That conflict has been given an added twist, says Professor Gurtov, by the “change in relative power and influence” of the two rivals. “Japan has been on a long-term downslide in terms of its capability to project and preserve its interests in Asia, while China is on a very different trajectory,” Gurtov points out.

Japan, however, is not the only neighbor of China’s to have found that closer formal ties with Beijing do not always bear the fruit that had been expected, says Drew Thompson, director of China studies at the Nixon Center in Washington.

South Korea, he recalls, was bitterly disappointed earlier this year to find that the “strategic partnership of cooperation” it had sealed with China in 2008 did not mean China would do anything more than express regret at the loss of life when a North Korean submarine sunk the Cheonan, a South Korean naval vessel, killing 36 sailors.

“Are the Chinese ready to pay for their desire for better relations?” wonders Dr. Thompson. “Are they ready to go the extra mile and pay the domestic cost, for example, of accepting Japan’s apology for its behavior during World War II?”

The official messages currently coming out of Beijing suggests not. “Peaceful development does not mean constantly surrendering and giving up core interests,” declared an editorial in last Sunday’s People’s Daily, the official organ of the ruling Communist party.

The current crisis, argued the editorial, is a result of “the serious mistakes and ignominious conspiracies of Japan’s policy towards relations with China.

“Japan cannot on the one hand hitch its economy to China’s ‘fast-development train’ and on the other hand be suspicious of China and play the containment card,” People’s Daily warned.

“There will be continuing ups and downs,” predicts Gurtov. “There’ll continue to be positive interactions … in fields such as the environment and trade, but from time to time the negatives, like mistrust and territorial disputes, are going to trump the positives."

It shows, Gurtov adds, “that the strong economic ties that China and Japan have developed don’t necessarily create political bridges that last.”