A carefully orchestrated visit this week to Japan by Chinese President Hu Jintao laid the groundwork for better relations after an extended chill between the two Asian powerhouses. But with both leaders eager to put to rest the extended chill between the two Asian powerhouses, the emphasis was on a "safe" summit that ducked contentious issues and sidestepped issues of global concern.
During their meeting, Mr. Hu and Japanese President Yasuo Fukuda emphasized "friendship and cooperation" instead of rivalry, moving the nations further away from a period of sharp confrontations over wartime history. Indeed, Hu was careful to avoid inflaming nationalists in Japan, as former president Jiang Zemin did during a 1998 visit.
The leaders promised to meet at least once a year and Hu offered to loan pandas to Tokyo. But they failed to sign agreements on contentious issues such as oil and gas exploration in the East China Sea, although Mr. Fukuda said the countries were close to resolving the dispute over the gas fields, which China is tapping but Japan says should be jointly developed.
Also unresolved was blame for tainted dumplings from China that recently poisoned people in Japan. And if the two did exchange sharper views on subjects such as Darfur and Burma, it was behind closed doors.
"Be it the gyoza [dumpling] case or the oil and gas field problem, it is high time that the countries that exercise political leadership in Asia held talks squarely to move in the right direction," Akiko Domoto, the governor of Chiba Prefecture near Tokyo, said Wednesday. "It's better not to let pandas fool us."
In Japan, Hu lavished praise on the Japanese people for their hard work and urged both nations to "recognize each other's development objectively and accurately, and consider each other as partners for cooperation, not rivals." In a speech broadcast live on Japanese TV, he said that "[T]o remember history is not to nurse hatred, but to use history as a mirror and look forward to the future. Cherish peace, safeguard peace, let Chinese people and Japanese people be friends generation after generation."
But Hu also seemed eager to remind Japan that China, despite being on one of the world's largest economies, faces serious challenges. Speaking at Waseda University in Tokyo, Mr. Fukuda's alma mater, China's president told an audience of 900 people – including 200 students – that "China is still the world's largest developing country. Its population is large, its basis is weak, and its development is unbalanced."
Mr. Fukuda, who had hoped that the historic summit would help his abysmal popularity ratings, which are below 21 percent, appeared somewhat sidelined in his own country. While he had been expected to indulge in some ping pong with Hu, Fukuda watched instead as Hu removed his coat and hit smashes against Ai Fukuhara, a Japanese table tennis star who is popular in China. "This is a very strategic game of ping-pong. I think we have to remain on guard," quipped Fukuda, a longtime advocate of reconciliation with China.
Hu may have wanted simply to engage ordinary Japanese, as Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao did last year by jogging and practicing tai chi in Tokyo's Yoyogi Park. But many Japanese, proud of their culture's modesty, thought Hu was showing up his host.
Several dozen alumni of Waseda signed a statement calling Hu "the chief executive of oppression over the right to ethnic self-determination and human rights of the Tibetans." Former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe told Hu of the need to improve human rights conditions of Tibetans. Outside Waseda, about 200 protesters demanded more justice and cultural freedom for Tibetans, while about 50 Chinese students yelled "Go China!".
But while he is known for his "charm offensives" overseas, Hu did not extend that to the Dalai Lama, continuing to accuse the Tibet spiritual leader of trying to sabotage the Olympics, though the Dalai Lama has repeatedly said he supports the Olympics.
Officially at least, Japan seemed to sidestep the Tibet issue, though Fukuda praised Beijing's decision to meet with representatives of the Dalai Lama. A joint press statement on human rights did not specifically cite the situation in Tibet, according to Japanese Foreign Ministry officials quoted in Japanese media.
China and Japan issued a joint statement on Wednesday on environmental cooperation. Hu also praised an ecofriendly plastic bottle recycling plant he visited in Kanagawa prefecture near Tokyo on Friday.
The visit indicated significant improvement upon the friction under former leader Junichiro Koizumi, who didn't join several former Japanese leaders for breakfast with Hu Wednesday. And questions remain over whether cordial relations between government leaders is enough to deal with major new problems. During an interview with Chinese state TV on Thursday, Fukuda appealed for China to understand Japan's stance on a number of issues.
The two sides couldn't even agree on when to begin charter flights between airports near the centers of Tokyo and Beijing. Even Hu's offer to lend two pandas to replace the recently deceased Ling Ling sparked controversy. A Tokyo metropolitan government official said that the normal going rate for Japan to lease pandas was $1 million per year. Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, an outspoken critic of China, asked the zoo to study whether the deal would make financial sense. Ueno Zoo officials said many angry Japanese called to demand they refuse to pay for the pandas.
• Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.