Could China and Japan see a spring thaw in relations?

Diplomatic visits between Japan and China had been largely suspended since last September, when a territorial dispute brought the two Northeast Asian powers to the edge of a confrontation. 

Xinhua/AP
One of the small islands in the East China Sea known as Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese is seen from a Chinese marine surveillance plane, Dec. 2012. China’s relations with Japan are sprouting after more than six frosty months of a territorial dispute that has pushed the two Asian neighbors to the brink of military confrontation.

The first shoots of a possible spring thaw in China’s relations with Japan are sprouting after more than six frosty months of a territorial dispute that has pushed the two Asian neighbors to the brink of military confrontation.

In reciprocal, though unofficial, gestures, cultural envoys from both sides are exchanging visits this month in a resumption of such ties that could herald a relaxation of diplomatic tensions, observers here say.

“The visits are preparations for formal official contacts in the future,” says Xu Jingbo, a professor of Japanese studies at Shanghai’s Fudan University. “Both sides have a strong desire to improve their relationship.”

 Li Xiaolin, head of the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, is currently visiting Japan, attending events such as the opening of a Chinese book fair in the Japanese capital. 

Later this month, the Japanese news agency Kyodo reports, the head of the Japan-China Friendship Center, Satsuki Eda, will visit Beijing and meet Chinese officials, including new Foreign Minister Wang Yi, a fluent Japanese speaker.

Such visits had been largely suspended since Japan announced last September that it was nationalizing a group of islands in the East China Sea known in Japan as the Senkaku islands and in China – which also claims sovereignty over them – as the Diaoyu islands. (See a map of the area here.)

Bilateral relations between China, the second-largest economy in the world, and Japan, the third-largest, have nosedived since the crisis broke out. Chinese naval vessels have regularly patrolled waters around the island, and incursions into Japanese territorial waters by Chinese coastguard and other official vessels have become an almost daily occurrence.

In February, Japan accused a Chinese naval vessel of “locking on” its missile guidance radar to a Japanese ship, a threatening move that China later denied.

Trade between the two neighbors has plummeted, partly because of a consumer boycott in China of Japanese cars and other products. Overall trade fell from $27.8 billion last August, before the crisis broke out, to $19.9 billion in February, a 30 percent drop.

The two economies are heavily dependent upon each other, however, and neither side appears keen to damage their bilateral relationship irrevocably.

In an interview published Sunday in Japan, former Japanese Prime Minister Tomiichi Muramaya said that in a meeting last January with then-Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, Mr. Yang has said that a clash would be “foolish, given the damage it would do to both sides, considering our economic relations.” 

Since Xi Jinping became president of China last month, “he has shown both a firm attitude in defense of China’s territory and a desire to improve relations with Japan,” says Professor Xu. “Li’s visit to Tokyo is an expression of the wish to improve ties.”

There has been no official bilateral contact between the Chinese and Japanese governments at a senior level for six months, aside from a meeting last month at which South Korean, Chinese, and Japanese trade officials launched negotiations for a free trade pact. 

Plans for a regular annual summit between the leaders of China, Japan, and South Korea, slated to be held in Seoul in May, have not yet been finalized, according to diplomatic sources, because of the difficulty of persuading the Chinese president to meet the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe under current circumstances.

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