Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita's forthcoming visit to China is ``the first step in a new leap forward in Sino-Japanese relations,'' says a source close to the Japanese leader. The Prime Minister's trip, which begins today, commemorates the 10th anniversary of the signing of a peace and friendship treaty between island Japan and continental China. Seldom in those 10 years have relations between the two been better.
Japan is China's largest provider of foreign aid, by far. In foreign policy, Japan and China see eye to eye on most major issues, from Cambodia to peace in the Persian Gulf. More Chinese are studying in Japan than in any other country except the United States.
The potential for friction remains. Controversies over ownership of a student dormitory in Kyoto, which both Taiwan and China claim belongs to them, and over Japan's role in World war II - stirred by a Cabinet minister who claimed Japan was not an aggressor against China - have been swept under the carpet. And, although they could revive any day, both sides seem determined to accentuate the positive.
Mr. Takeshita is taking to Peking a five-year aid package (covering the years 1990-1995) amounting to over $6 billion - 70 percent more than aid being supplied under the current plan (1984-1989). The plan covers 50 projects large and small from the Peking subway to flood control in Jiangsu and other regional projects. No country other than Japan is giving this type of development aid in such quantity.
Takeshita also wishes to emphasize cultural ties between his country and China. After seeing China's top leaders in Peking today through Saturday, he will fly to Dunhuang on the ancient Silk Road from Byzantium to the capital of China during the glorious days of the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD). There, he will visit the paintings and statues of the Mogao caves and announce a donation of more than $7 million for the preservation of the paintings and the construction of a museum to house some of the relics.
Takeshita is anxious to make the point that Japan is not just interested in commerce or politics, but that it values cultural ties as well. From Dunhuang he will proceed to Xian, site of the Tang capital Chang-an, on which Japan's own former capital, Kyoto, is modeled. There, he is making a speech at a university which, again, will emphasize the importance of cultural links between China and Japan.
At the political level, foreign ministry sources said that Takeshita will probably ask senior Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping about Sino-Soviet rapprochement - how far the rapprochement is likely to proceed and whether a Deng-Gorbachev meeting is on the horizon.
Tokyo, like Washington, used to count on China as a quasi-ally in the West's confrontation with Moscow. But in this new era of d'etente, East Asian relations are fluctuating. South Korea, for instance, is trying to forge close economic ties not only with China but also with the Soviet Union.
The Japanese newspaper Yomiuri recently wrote of the prospects of establishing a ``Northeast Asian economic zone'' comprising China, Japan, the two Koreas, and the Asian portion of the Soviet Union. China, the newspaper said, is shortly to set up a Northeast Asia Research Institute in Changchun, capital of Jilin Province: one of the purposes of the institute will be to study the possibilities of regional economic cooperation.
Of course, North Korea would have to be persuaded to join any such arrangement, and there are lingering animosities not only between the two Koreas but also between the Koreans and Japan as well as between China and Japan.
``We used to admire the Japanese for working so hard to recover from the ashes of World War II,'' said a Chinese professor in a recent interview. ``But now that the Japanese have become so strong, we wonder whether they may not be trying to cheat us and take advantage of our weakness, as they did before the war. The Japanese are very cunning, we used to say. That image is reviving these days.''
On the Japanese side, there are many who show insensitivity to Chinese feelings. Some members of the ruling Liberal-Democrat party have publicly upheld the Cabinet member's statement denying Japanese aggression against China in the 1930s. But prevailing Japanese opinion, as shown in newspaper editorials and television commentaries, supports stable and friendly relations with China.
China's influence is felt, in either a positive or a negative sense, by all the countries along its long southern border. Thus there is wide support for the thesis that stable Sino-Japanese relations contribute to peace in Asia and to world peace as a whole, and consequently for a successful outcome to Takeshita's trip.