CHINA / National

China, Japan grope for rapprochement
Updated: 2006-06-12 06:47

Japan and China are seeking to lay the foundation for better relations when Junichiro Koizumi steps down as Japan's prime minister in September, according to Japanese officials and academics.

China's Minister of foreign affairs Li Zhaoxing, left, and Japan's Foreign Minister Taro Aso, second left, arrive for a bilateral talk at the opening of The Fifth Asian Cooperation Dialogue Conference held in Doha, Qatar, on Tuesday, May 23, 2006. Others unidentified. [AP]
Tokyo has reacted positively to remarks made by Hu Jintao, China's president, who was quoted as telling the new Japanese ambassador to Beijing at the weekend that he hoped to visit Japan if political relations improved.

The reference to a possible visit was seen in Tokyo as the latest in a series of signs that both sides are fumbling for a way out of their diplomatic impasse.

The last visit to Japan by a Chinese head of state was made by Jiang Zemin in 1998, since when top-level exchanges have been frozen.

Relations between the two countries have deteriorated sharply during Mr Koizumi's five-year tenure, with Beijing largely blaming the prime minister's annual pilgrimages to the Yasukuni shrine, which honours Japan¡¯s war dead, including convicted war criminals.

Mr Miyamoto quoted Mr Hu as telling him: "It is our hope that current political obstacles will be removed and the relations between the two countries will soon return to a path of healthy and stable expansion."

Japan recently unfroze Y74bn ($649m, ?14m, ¡ê352m) of loans to China, winning guarded praise from Beijing. Last month, Taro Aso, Japan's foreign minister, met Li Zhaoxing, his counterpart, on the sidelines of an economic conference in Doha, Qatar, the first such encounter in a year.

"It is quite evident that both sides are trying to defrost the present situation and use any opportunity to show the world that things are improving," said an official at Japan's foreign ministry.

Gerald Curtis, Burgess professor of political science at Columbia University, said: "Both sides are groping for a way to get out of this box."

Prof Curtis said Beijing had stopped talking about Yasukuni so intensively, in the hope that Mr Koizumi's successors would be able to drop the subject of visits quietly without appearing to be caving in to Chinese pressure.

Some analysts believe the stage could be set for a genuine warming of Sino-Japanese ties if Mr Koizumi's successor refrains from visiting Yasukuni.

Shinzo Abe, a strong candidate to succeed Mr Koizumi, has softened his stance on visiting the shrine, telling the FT recently that he would not repeat Mr Koizumi's pledge to make annual pilgrimages.

However, privately one Chinese official recently poured cold water on the idea that staying away from Yasukuni would be enough for a rapprochement, saying there were many other issues related to Japan¡¯s history of aggression against China that should also be addressed.

Some officials and academics in Beijing are keen to create a more constructive framework for relations.

Jeff Kingston, professor of Asian studies at Tokyo's Temple University, said that both Beijing and Tokyo appeared to have come to the conclusion that they had allowed things to deteriorate too far.

"The relationship has been in the deep-freeze for five years," Prof Kingston said. "I think both sides are trying to climb down in a way that is face-saving."


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