Japan and China: Is the Ice Breaking?

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Yao Dawei / Xinhua / Reuters

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, left, walks with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during a welcome ceremony outside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, October 8, 2006.

China is usually the first nation to protest any perceived backsliding by Japan on its acceptance of guilt for World War II abuses. So it was notable that not a peep came out of Beijing last month over the international furor ignited by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's denial that Japan's wartime army had forced tens of thousands of Asian women into sexual slavery. Beijing's diplomatic silence — much appreciated in Tokyo — was the latest sign of an unexpected thaw in the two nations' often troubled relationship. Japanese diplomats who could barely talk to their Chinese counterparts a year ago say communication has never been better, and on Wednesday, Tokyo welcomes Premier Wen Jiabao for a three-day stay that will be the first high-level Chinese visit to Japan in nearly seven years.

The turnaround began last October when Abe made a surprise trip to Beijing shortly after becoming Prime Minister. That helped break the ice that had built up over the previous five years, in part because of previous Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's repeated visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, a Shinto memorial to Japan's war dead viewed by many nations as an irredeemable symbol of Japanese imperialism. Over the same period, many in Tokyo accused the Chinese government of cynically stoking anti-Japanese sentiments for domestic political purposes. But both sides appear to have taken the end of Koizumi's term last fall as an opportunity to revive what Tokyo officials like to call a "future-oriented relationship." Abe, who had visited Yasukuni repeatedly during his years as a legislator, punted on the issue by refusing to say whether he would continue to do so. That appears to have been good enough for Beijing.

Japanese analysts believe China's President Hu Jintao has staked significant political capital on an improved bilateral relationship. And so has Abe, whose China visit proved to be a rare bright spot in a difficult first six months in office. The political stake of leaders in Beijing and Tokyo means that "both countries' top priority will be to make sure Wen's visit is a great success," says Ryosei Kokubun, director of the Institute of East Asian Studies at Tokyo's Keio University. "It has to be."

A successful visit will require that both sides accentuate the positive and avoid generating an expectation of breakthroughs on points of tension. One potentially fruitful — and uncontroversial — area of cooperation is the environment: China's rapid industrialization and inefficient energy use has created a horrific pollution problem; Japan has coped with similar problems in the past to become one of the world's most efficient energy users, and its expertise in this field could be of great benefit to China.

A more challenging energy issue, however, is the disputed ownership of rich underwater natural gas deposits in the East China Sea. Maritime boundary lines between China and Japan aren't fixed, and both claim a right to the gas — ships from the two countries faced off in tense confrontations in the area in 2004 and 2005. Even if they've managed to ease the standoff, the competition for scarce energy resources between two countries without adequate domestic supplies of their own make it difficult to resolve.

Abe and Wen will discuss the possibility of jointly developing the gas deposits, but Tokyo isn't hopeful. "I don't think we'll sign anything specific," says a senior Japanese foreign ministry official. "If it's worthwhile we will, and if it's not, we won't." The two sides may also sidestep their differences on how to handle North Korea's nuclear program — Japan wants more pressure on Pyongyang, but China has orchestrated a softer compromise in the Six-Party process.

Despite the strains — and the rivalry dating back millennia — today's China-Japan relationship is held together by an overwhelming imperative: business. Even when ties were at their frostiest over Koizumi's visits to Yasukuni and the response of Chinese protestors, economic ties continued to strengthen — last year, bilateral trade passed $200 billion, and China will soon become Japan's top trading partner.

Public opinion in both countries is not exactly fueling a thaw: A recent survey on college campuses in both countries found that 46% of students in Japan and 57% in China held a negative view of the other country, while over 80% of both characterized Japan-China relations as "bad."

In Japan, feelings of cultural superiority combine with a fear of being superseded to create a surprisingly common racism. One prominent Japanese executive, in a recent conversation, explained why he found Chinese immigration to Japan undesirable: "They put much less value on life there." In China, the simmering sense of humiliation over Japan's wartime atrocities can unleash waves of public rage with the least provocation. And should Abe eventually give in to his conservative political base and visit Yasukuni, the reaction from China would be swift and angry. "That is the worst scenario," says Kokubun. "The relationship between the two countries might end up worse than it was before."

Still, as aware as they are of the inevitability of future storms, diplomats and politicians on both sides have plenty of incentive to put on their friendliest faces, ever mindful of their shared incentive for maintaining the flow of trade and investment.