Gulf widens between Japan, China

President Hu drew a harder line last week over visits to Japan's controversial war shrine.

A year after rocks and bottles peppered Japanese businesses and diplomatic offices in the most public anti-Japanese outbursts in urban China for decades, relations between the two largest Asian powers have, if anything, frozen further.

In a little-noticed development, Chinese leader Hu Jintao appears for the first time to be setting a clear precondition for dialogue between Japanese and Chinese leaders: the cessation of visits by Japanese leaders to Yasukuni Shrine, where 14 Japanese war criminals are enshrined. Mr. Hu gave that message to Japanese "friendship" delegations who arrived in Beijing 10 days ago, making it difficult in face-saving Asia for Japan to yield on visiting the controversial shrine. Such a policy could drive Asia's two largest nations further apart amid ever-intensifying competition for influence and resources, experts say.

Some Chinese officials privately say that anti-Japanese emotions - normally kept in check - were fanned too hotly, causing mobs in Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, and Nanjing to pelt Japanese targets last spring. Japan was preparing to bid for a seat on the UN Security Council.

Yet a year later, both sides have continued a steady stream of provocative rhetoric and acts. At a rare national press conference last month, Chinese foreign minister Li Zhaoxing quoted a German diplomat who called the Yasukuni Shrine visits "stupid and immoral." When Japan officially summoned Chinese ambassador Wang Yi the next day in Tokyo, Mr. Wang refused to go - a serious diplomatic breach.

Shinzo Abe, Japan's cabinet secretary, told Japanese reporters only last week that "China and Japan have nothing in common." Yet while Mr. Abe, the lead candidate to replace Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in September, may have targeted a home audience, his comments were the lead headline in Cankao Xiaoxi, an influential paper among Beijing elites: "Shinzo Abe dares to defame China as damaging Asia's stability."

"We have a problem, and I don't see a way out of it right now, " argues a Chinese government source.

US ally Japan, and important US trading partner China, have the two largest economies and militaries in Asia. As China has steadily risen in power and influence in the past decade, the two nations, which have never resolved animosities dating to Japanese aggression in World War II, are competing for preeminence in Asia.

Both have taken an unusually sharp turn toward nationalist rhetoric. The turn has been especially swift in Japan, which until recently was considered a pacifist nation. The current architecture of relations - powerful economic links but deteriorating political and emotional ties - is unique in geopolitics, sources say.

Some experts worry most about unofficial ties. The usually liberal circles of elites, academics, NGOs, and citizens' groups that have long brought Japan and China together in important informal ways have faced damage, they say.

"Thirty years ago, people-to-people exchange was considered useful, and played a central role in the way relations went. It was a symbol of bilateral sentiments, and successful," says Jin Linbo of the China Institute for International Studies in Beijing. "There were no official ties, but lots of exchange. But now, to ask NGOs to repair relations is unrealistic."

For example, a marathon that started April 9 at Tiananmen Square, amid fluttering banners and dragon dances, has for more than 26 years been an exchange event. This year, only two Japanese delegates made the trip. One, Kando Tetsuo, vice president of the Tokyo branch of the China-Japan Friendship Society, said, "Our relations are not going smoothly." But, he added, "China and Japan can have a bright future," saying that in his view a majority of Japanese do not support the shrine visits.

Monday, Ichiro Ozawa, new leader of the Democratic Party of Japan, made a opposition to shrine visits his key point in kicking off a candidacy that will challenge the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

Currently, it is considered politically impossible for Japanese leaders to appear to have their actions dictated to by Beijing. That is how Tokyo's acceptance of Hu's precondition to stop visits to the shrine would appear, analysts say.

The Beijing visit by the friendship groups, led by former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, was designed to boost relations. While the groups agree that the shrine issue is legitimate, they feel it should not define relations, and asked prior to meeting with Hu that the shrine not be mentioned, as a sign of good faith.

Yet Hu spoke of nothing else, sources say. He was quoted by Xinhua news agency as saying that, "If the Japanese leader makes a clear commitment not to visit the Yasukuni Shrine again, I'm willing to engage in meetings and dialogue on the improvement and development of Sino-Japanese ties."

China's stance since Koizumi quietly visited Yasukuni shortly after his landslide election last fall appears to be to wait to deal with a successor. One professor here says China is prepared to wait "20 years, or as long as it takes," for a leader who will treat China properly.

The Communist Party under Mao was in no small part formed in opposition to the hated Japanese occupation of China in the mid-20th century. James Mulvenon, deputy director of the Center for Intelligence Research and Analysis in Washington, says that China has too long relied on Japan's lack of historical veracity as a way to cover its own problems, and its own lack of an affirmative strategy for getting along with Japan.

"If Koizumi suddenly stopped visiting the shrine, what would China do?" he asks. "I'm not sure Beijing knows."

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