With the first visit to Japan by a Chinese leader (Chairman Hua Guofeng) in 2 ,000 years, relations between Asia's two most powerful nations have reached a crucial turning point.
Eight years after they first became engaged, they must now work out accommodation for an enduring marriage with trials and tribulations as well as triumphs. One way will be through a just-established regular ministerial conference.
The first serious tests are already emerging. From now on, analysts see political and military issues casting a deep shadow over a relationship that has been cultivated on economic ties.
After an initial pause following normalization of diplomatic relations in 1972, the tempo picked up two years ago. A peace and friendship treaty was signed. This was followed by a nongovernmental, long-term trade pact.
There is little doubt here that China is well on the way to becoming a major trade partner. The Chinese, in turn, are going to rely heavily on Japan for the money and expertise to carry out their goal of becoming a major industrial power by the end of the century.
But in the political and military areas, there is a strong impression of an ardent Chinese bride having some trouble dragging a reluctant Japanese bridegroom to the altar.
There are a number of top officials here concerned that the pace is too fast. After years of reviling an alleged resurgence of Japanese militarism, China has suddenly become an extremely vocal champion of more Japanese defense spending.
Peking is singing in perfect harmony with the United States, which also wants Japan to do more for itself and regional security.
Chinese officials, in recent conversations with visiting Japanese, have stressed joint cooperation to oppose the advance of Soviet hegemonism. (Japanese reluctance to take such an open anti-Soviet stance delayed signing of the peace and friendship treaty. Tokyo eventually bowed to Chinese insistence and allowed inclusion of a general paragraph condemning hegemonism.)
But when Wu Xiuquan, deputy chief of the general staff, said earlier this year that Japan could earmark 2 percent of its gross national product for defense (against less than 1 percent now), the Foreign Ministry in Tokyo reacted sharply by describing the remark as interference in Japan's internal affairs.
There is also considerable irritation here about the recent test firing of a Chinese intercontinental ballistic missile, which the Japanese fear will exacerbate tensions with the Soviet Union.There is also a strong opinion that too much emphasis on relations with China will only worsen Japan's already stormy ties with Russia.
Moscow has been mounting a continuous anti-Japanese tirade ever since the peace and friendship treaty was signed two years ago (while there has been no progress for many years on a similar Japan-Soviet Union pact).
Soviet Ambassador Dimitri Polyansky, for example, at a recent press conference sought to justify a Russian military buildup on Japanese-claimed northern islands by pointing to what he termed "moves to strengthen the US-China-Japan military alliance."
Some Japanese see these tests as part of the price the country must pay to assume an international political role consummate with its economic strength.
There is a great deal of symbolic importance behind Mr. Hua's visit. Japan is no longer the vassal state traveling to Peking to pledge allegiance to the emperor. Economically, of course, the roles were reversed long ago.
The Japanese have pledged total cooperation in China's modernization drive. Analysts say Tokyo hopes this will promote political and social stability so that Peking will maintain close cooperation with noncommunist nations.
When Trade and Industry Minister Yoshitake Sasaki recently visited Peking, Chinese officials were virtually queuing up to stress the message: China expects Japan to play a key role in our modernization plan. China desperately needs Japan's capital and technology. In return, the Chinese are offering Japan access to their unlimited and untapped natural resources.
Nevertheless, some apprehension persists over the difficulties facing the modernization plan. Japan recognizes the possibility of renewed political turmoil in China over the clash between economic pragmatism and maintenance of the Communist Party's leading role.
These fears, however, have not yet impeded the rapid expansion of trade and economic links. After a cautious start, both sides are now pragmatically pursuing trade links. One significant feature: an arrangement for China to pay for Japanese industrial plants and equipment with coal and oil.
Energy-hungry Japan needs both, and the long-term trade agreement signed two years ago provides for a barter deal worth $30 billion up to 1990.
Japan's imports of Chinese coal will total 3.2 million tons next year, plus 15 million tons of oil. Government and industry officials want this raised to 10 million and 30 million tons respectively by 1985. China would then be providing 10 percent of Japan's coal and 12 percent of its oil.
Japanese firms are now preliminarily studying a liquefaction plant fueled with China's abundant brown coal reserves. They are also participating in China's oil exploration program, even though the two countries are feuding over Japan- South Korean drilling on the adjacent continental shelf.
Trade between the two countries has mushroomed from $1.1 billion in 1972 to $ 6.6 billion last year. This will reach $10 billion next year, forecasts a foreign ministry report, and $12 billion by 1988.
Japan last year recorded a $700 million trade surplus with China -- not large compared to the gap with its other major trading partners. But experts here think this will disappear as oil and coal prices rise.
The economic relationship also has its problems, however. Two years ago China rushed in to order $3.6 billion worth of industrial plants, only to shelve the orders a year later due to lack of foreign reserves. This has now been basically overcome by a several-billion-dollar Japanese loan offer to finance the plant imports.