Japan and China making historic amends, one humdrum trip at a time

Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso ended a two-day trip to Beijing Thursday. Both countries affirmed their desire to cooperate but avoided troublesome topics.

BEIJING – I attended Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso’s press conference at the end of his 24-hour trip to China out of a sense of curiosity.

For this short visit, the two countries had stuck to relatively uncontroversial areas of cooperation – the economy, swine flu, global warming, youth exchanges. They did not dwell long on tenser topics like North Korea’s nuclear threat.

Since nothing of note had emerged from the trip, how would Mr. Aso make it seem to have been worthwhile?

In truth, the real story was not what Aso did while he was here, but rather the mere fact of his presence in China. Tokyo and Beijing have such a tortured history of enmity, brutality, and mistrust that simple exchanges like a quick trip by the prime minister are important in their own right.

In any case, I need not have feared for him. To start with, the Japanese prime ministerial press apparatus allowed only four questions.

Two were from Japanese reporters who asked domestic political questions of no relevance to the China visit. One was from the correspondent of the Chinese Communist Party organ, the People’s Daily (which Aso characterized as “the most disorganized question I have ever heard at a press conference”).

The last was from Dow Jones about Japanese-Chinese economic cooperation. (You will not be any more surprised than I was to hear that “I agreed with President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao that Japan and China will cooperate in addressing the global economic and financial crisis.”)

Aso really had nothing to say, but at least he was honest about why not: He began his opening comments by recalling that, last year, he and Mr. Hu had “agreed that the leader of each country would visit the other each year.”

So if he hadn’t come, the press would be asking why not, and what it meant for the two countries’ still-fragile relations.

Aso could almost certainly have done all his business by telephone. But then the world would not have seen Sino-Japanese relations normalizing, visit by visit.

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