China and Japan have pledged friendship and cooperation into the 21st century and beyond. If the pledge, exchanged by top Chinese leaders with visiting Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, takes root, it could prove as significant as the reconciliation that West Germany, France, and Britain achieved since World War II.
The obstacles are great. Germany's integration into Western Europe was made possible because of shared political and economic values and systems. But China is communist, while Japan's system is based on free enterprise and pluralistic democracy.
China has a vast territory and a population of 1 billion. Japan is about the size of an average Chinese province, and its population is one-ninth that of China.
The friendship and cooperation Mr. Nakasone and his hosts are talking about does not signify even the limited economic and political integration in the European Community. But the two neighbors are attracted to each other in an odd mixture of historical sentiment, cultural affinity, and economic self-interest.
The negative aspect of this attraction was expressed by a well-traveled Japanese businessman, who holds that someday Japan is bound to be boycotted by the West Europeans and the Americans. In that day, he says, Japan will have no recourse but to join hands with China.
Such sentiments, expressed by a man who may be politically naive but who is no raving rightist, horrify the international-minded Japanese and do not by any means represent majority opinion among his countrymen. But it would be foolish to pretend that, if economic frictions among the United States, Western Europe, and Japan are allowed to fester and rankle, more Japanese will begin to express openly what they only occasionally and half-heartedly think about today.
The more positive and hopeful side of the attraction Japan and China feel for each other is the fact that it takes place with the blessing of Japan's most important partner, the United States. And in the context of China's open-door policy, modernization will emphasize cooperation with all Western countries, not just Japan.
China's leaders are well aware of the deficiencies of the Soviet economic model that they have followed in the past, and have broken away from it in several important aspects.
China's countryside is flourishing because of the peasants' increasing freedom to work as they please, earn money as they please, and spend it as they please. Mr. Nakasone talked briefly with peasants in a free market in Peking and visited a commune near Wuhan to see this phenomenon firsthand.
China now wants to transform industry - a far more complicated task - at least partly by introducing more efficient and profit-oriented ways of the West through joint enterprises.
In fact, China's leaders, while expressing gratitude for governmental economic aid from Japan, chided Mr. Nakasone gently for the low level of private Japanese investment in China. (Japan has pledged $2.1 billion in low-interest government aid to China over the next seven years, and is negotiating a further Export-Import Bank credit that may reach $3 billion. But investment in China so far totals $20 million - one-fourth what US firms are investing in joint enterprises here.)
Mr. Nakasone responded that the Japanese wanted to see a legal structure more protective of foreign rights and interests, especially in the patent field, where China has just passed new laws. But this kind of specific complaint and countercomplaint was muted during the Japanese prime minister's visit here March 23 to 26.
Rather, Mr. Nakasone's goal - and that of his hosts - seemed to be to forge such close ties that the two sides could have disagreements on specific issues without endangering the overall bond.