Chinese premier's visit to Japan marks major thaw

Wen Jiabao will address Japan's Diet, discuss trade, and even play baseball.

The visit to Tokyo this week by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao marks the latest step in what appears to be a remarkable turnaround in the China-Japan relationship.

Under former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who sparked outrage in China with his visits to Yasukuni Shrine – a potent symbol of Japan's militaristic past – relations became so icy that the two leaders failed to hold a formal summit for five years.

China, for its part, stoked regional concerns of a resurgent Japanese nationalism. The issue came to a head in the spring of 2005, when demonstrations in China over Japan's alleged whitewashing of its wartime past in school texts turned violent and demonstrators attacked Japanese consulates, supermarkets, and restaurants.

Yet since then both China and Japan have stepped back, with China offering a more restrained response to Mr. Koizumi's final visit as Japan's leader to Yasukuni and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who took office last September, making Beijing, not Washington, his first port of call.

Mr. Wen has described this visit, which starts Wednesday, as an ice-melting exercise and has been keen to stress the importance of a healthy relationship. The two leaders are expected to discuss their countries' booming trade, environmental cooperation – and may touch on more-contentious territorial and energy disputes. Wen will speak to the Diet, or parliament – the first time a Chinese leader has done so in more than 20 years – and is even scheduled to play baseball with college students in western Japan.

"I think the Chinese understand they need a good relationship with the Japanese," says Brad Glosserman, director of the Pacific Forum at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Having the Japanese concerned about them was just darkening their image, and they recognize that a good relationship is beneficial, especially economically."

Yumiko Mikanagi, a professor of social science at the International Christian University in Tokyo, says that the decision to mend fences with China was prompted by both public concern and criticism from within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. But she believes there is also a personal element to Abe's pragmatism. "I don't think he has changed; he's still quite nationalistic," she says. "But ... he has to prove he's better than Koizumi, and in order to differentiate himself he had to do something different."

Peter Beck, director of the International Crisis Group's East Asia program, says that the Chinese have recognized that playing the nationalism card can end up hurting them. "It's just too volatile an issue for them to be using effectively," he says.

This shift was underscored during the recent furor created by Abe's claims that there was no evidence that women were forced into slavery by the Japanese Army during World War II. Whereas once the Chinese might have led the calls for an apology over the remarks, it was instead some of Japan's closest allies that took up the issue.

"I think they [the Chinese] realize that beating up on the Japanese is bad for them, and I think they also believe they don't need to," says Mr. Glosserman. "You just have to look who's been doing the beating up on the comfort issue – NGOs, the US Congress. The Chinese can just sit back and look like responsible international citizens."

Indeed, an expected joint statement during Wen's visit on tackling global warming suggests that China sees improved relations with Japan as an opportunity to try to burnish its credentials as a good global citizen. China is said to be ready to enter post-Kyoto negotiations on a future framework and also to agree to work with Japan on a number of projects including water purification and reforestation.

Glosserman says that one motivation for the recent shift is China's determination to make Wen's visit a success. "Improving relations with Japan makes China look like a responsible stakeholder," he explains.

Despite the extended tensions in political relations, economic ties between the two countries have been thriving. China's trade with Japan in 2006 jumped 12.4 percent from a year earlier, to $207.36 billion – more than double the $101.91 billion recorded in 2002, according to Chinese government figures.

A further sign of the improving economic and political climate was China's decision in January to, in principle, resume imports of Japanese rice. Imports were suspended in 2003, ostensibly over insects being found in the rice, though the decision was widely viewed as having a political element.

However, though economics have helped drive China-Japan relations forward, China's rapidly growing economy presents its own problems.

"The Chinese have been proceeding with a more pragmatic approach because they want to continue their economic growth. But the Senkaku Islands issue has not been resolved, and the problem could actually deepen," says Mr. Beck, referring to an ongoing territorial dispute about the oil-rich islands, which lie southwest of Japan. "The Chinese are going ahead with exploration in the gas fields round there, and this is only going to get worse as China's energy demands skyrocket."

Japan and China have held talks over the issue, but they have failed to reach agreement. And despite efforts at greater cooperation – even in the military sphere, with Chinese naval vessels expected to visit a Japanese port in August – there is still friction both over China's military buildup and Japan's own missile-defense shield plans.

But it is the recurring questions of history that Beck believes could pose the greatest risk to the thawing process currently under way. Despite more measured rhetoric, Wen did call on Abe not to visit Yasukuni shrine. Abe did not say whether he would go, though he is not expected to inflame the relationship with a visit.

Beck also notes that this year marks the 70th anniversary of the Nanjing massacre. "The Japanese leadership therefore needs to be careful about pushing too far with its revisionism," he says.

Beck adds that he remains cautious about the ability of Asia's two dominant powers to maintain their current course "I assume that pragmatism will prevail. But the wild card will be Nanjing."

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