Historic port call marks Japan-China thaw

The arrival of a Japanese war ship in a Chinese port and the recent announcement of a joint gas-exploration deal signal improving bilateral ties, but territorial disputes remain unresolved.

A Japanese war ship made a port call in China this week for the first time since World War II, as East Asia's two leading powers seek to forge stronger ties and turn the page on their troubled past.

The visit comes on the heels of a landmark deal last week between Tokyo and Beijing to jointly develop gas fields in the East China Sea, and an ice-breaking visit by Chinese President Hu Jintao to Japan in May.

Analysts see these events as part of a broad trend of warming relations between the historic rivals. But they cautioned that the two nations have failed to resolve dangerous, underlying disputes in the East China Sea.

The Associated Press reported that the Japanese destroyer Sazanami arrived Tuesday in Zhanjiang, a port city in southern Guangdong Province, on what was officially a humanitarian relief mission.

Agence France Presse reported that Chinese residents welcomed the ship, but that a strong sense of rivalry persists.

The Times noted the lingering sensitivities in China over allowing Japanese military visits.

Anti-Japanese sentiment remains widespread in China. That's due to bitter memories of Japan's brutal occupation of China in the 1930s and 1940s, and what many Chinese and other observers see as Japan's failure to make a full, formal apology for wartime atrocities.

In the last two years, the Chinese government has shown a willingness to play down such grievances in order to improve bilateral ties. That policy shift came after former Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi left office in 2006. Mr. Koizumi had irked China with visits to a controversial war shrine.

The Christian Science Monitor reported in May on President Hu Jintao's trip to Japan, which paved the way for recent breakthroughs. In Tokyo, Mr. Hu played ping-pong with a Japanese table tennis star, praised the Japanese people, and urged long-term friendship between the two nations.

That softer policy line has begun to bear fruit. Last Wednesday, China and Japan announced a deal on joint exploration of natural gas fields, reported the Associated Press.

The Daily Yomiuri shows that the deal was hailed as a major step forward since the two countries' competing claims in the gas and oil-rich East China Sea are one of the main sticking points in bilateral relations.

Security experts warn the East China Sea is a potential flashpoint for conflict between one of Asia's strongest navies – Japan's – and its rapidly rising naval power, China.

The Financial Times noted that despite the gas deal, the countries' territorial dispute has not been resolved.

Writing in the China Brief, which is published by The Jamestown Foundation, earlier this month, James Manicom, an expert on China-Japan maritime disputes, noted that the two countries' spat in the East China Sea goes beyond gas and oil rights. Chinese naval vessels routinely violate a 2001 agreement by entering Japan's exclusive economic zone, Chinese military intelligence vessels continue research in disputed areas, and fishing disputes are frequent, writes Manicom.

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