On March 16, Premier Wen Jiabao told reporters covering the annual sessions of the National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference at a press conference in Beijing that if Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's China trip last October was an "ice-breaking" visit, he hoped his forthcoming visit to Japan would be an "ice-melting" one.
Meanwhile, Secretary-General of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party Hidenao Nakagawa and Secretary-General of the New Komeito Party Tetsuzo Fuyushiba, who were on a friendly visit to China, called on both China and Japan to thaw various "floating-ice" frictions between them and remove current worries by confirming common interests.
It can be said that ice-breaking, ice-melting and floating-ice-thawing all vividly describe the new situation where the two countries are trying to shatter the stalemate arresting the bilateral relationship over the past five years, put it back on a normal development track and continue to strengthen and develop friendly ties.
President Hu Jintao has repeatedly emphasized that both sides should understand that Sino-Japanese ties are of strategic significance and the two sides should actively promote the ties of friendly neighbors for the sake of future generations.
When Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited China last October, leaders of both countries agreed to develop a "strategic relationship of mutual benefit". By the same token, the seventh China-Japan diplomatic dialogue in late January was upgraded from "comprehensive policy dialogue" to "strategic dialogue".
The strategic importance of Sino-Japanese relations is achieving consensus among leaders of the two nations.
On the strategic level, China-Japan friendship is the overriding interest, while the disputes and conflicts between the two countries are temporary issues.
Be it history or current East China Sea issues, the two countries should always follow the guiding principle of seeking consensus in spite of minor differences to handle the relation between friendship and other issues appropriately.
Abe's predecessor exacerbated disputes between the two countries and created a stalemate in Sino-Japanese relations by insisting on visiting the Yasukuni Shrine every year. Lessons should be taken from this.
The development of Sino-Japan ties is for the people; the improvement of this relationship depends on the people; and we owe the recent recovery of this relationship to the people.
As Premier Wen Jiabao said, Sino-Japanese friendship is the common wish of both peoples and nothing can stop its development. After all, the development of Sino-Japanese ties is for both peoples, makes the sum of all common interests of both peoples and represents the wish of both peoples for peaceful and friendly coexistence. At the same time, a stable and healthy relationship between China and Japan also serves the interests of all Asian nations and the world.
Who else can be depended on for the development of Sino-Japanese ties other than the two peoples? It was the two peoples who created the history of friendly exchanges between their nations that lasted for more than 2,000 years. The two nations pushed forward the normalization of diplomatic relations till the crowning moment in 1972 when China and Japan normalized relations.
Who should we thank for the recent recovery of Sino-Japanese relations? Enlightened politicians no doubt played an important role, but they were only following the wishes of the people.
In Japan, for instance, it was the people's demand for improved relations with China that culminated in the clear sky after a storm.
A public survey published last November 28 in Japan Business News asked: "Which country does Japan most need to strengthen its relations with?" About 35 percent of respondents said China, compared with 33 percent who chose the United States.
No right-minded politician would make any decision over the bilateral ties against the people's wishes.
Trade data is part of the picture. The total value of trade between China and Japan exceeded $200 billion for the first time last year and China is expected to replace the US as Japan's top trading partner this year. If Hong Kong is also included in this calculation, China-Japan trade value topped that between Japan and the US a long time ago.
The Sino-Japanese economic ties are a win-win relationship. China's continuous development and emergence as a major economic power is beneficial to Japan, while Japan's departure from the lost 10 years is beneficial to China. The development of bilateral economic ties increases interdependency between the two countries and inevitably enhances mutual understanding between peoples.
Generally speaking, the expansion of economic exchanges and deepening interdependency between the two countries help reduce friction in political and security areas.
However, for nations, political and security goals are more important. This explains why economic interdependency has but limited check on state tendencies to go for confrontation.
Motivated by political and security considerations, a government tends to concern itself with how much the other side has gained. It feels its security will be threatened if the other side's growing economic strength is transformed into military might.
If Japan sees a peacefully developing China as a threat, while China and other Asian nations feel disturbed by a Japan which is bent on becoming a "normal country" and expanding "military power" and cannot be sure Japan won't revive militarism (such worry and suspicion are magnified by the history factor), mutual confidence between China and Japan will suffer.
Therefore, it is imperative for building a mutually-beneficial Sino-Japan strategic relationship so that the two countries find effective ways to overcome the so-called security trap. At the same time, they need to create a mechanism that will enhance mutual trust.
China and Japan need to develop a culture of mutual confidence. It has become a key challenge for both countries to eliminate suspicion, build up trust, and make possible a virtuous cycle of confidence adding to confidence, and leave behind the vicious cycle of distrust spurring distrust.
To do so it is necessary for leaders of the two nations to visit each other's land and exchange as much information as possible during these visits.
This includes advance diplomatic and media preparation, direct talks with members of the state leader's entourage, direct dialogue between the state leader and politicians as well as media representatives and even members of the public of the host country. This will help improve the mood of bilateral relations and build up mutual understanding and confidence more effectively than ordinary contacts do.
As neighbors separated only by a slim body of water, China and Japan enjoy the advantage of the right time, the right place and the right crowd in their efforts to expand the scope of people-to-people exchanges.
The right time refers to the reality that peace and development have become the main theme of the time. Economic globalization and regional economic integration have become a trend of the time. Unconventional threats such as environmental pollution are gaining prominence among issues of common concern.
The right place points to the fact that the two countries are geographically close, making travel between them easy and the time difference negligible. Maritime transport between the two countries is free of safety concerns.
The right crowd refers to the fact that both China and Japan embrace the Confucian culture, which emphasizes harmony and trust. The Confucian spirit of harmony and trust enabled the Chinese and Japanese people to have more than 2,000 years of friendship.
By conducting exchanges at both state leader and political levels as well as citizen levels, the culture of confidence between the two countries will grow and flourish.
The two nations will firmly follow the principle enshrined in the three political documents signed by both governments and head for a bright future, remembering not to make past mistakes ever again.
I believe the first trip to Japan in seven years by the premier of China will be marked in history as a successful visit.
Leaders and the general public of the two countries will thaw any floating ice with their burning desire to protect bilateral ties. Sino-Japan relations have survived a depressing winter and now welcome the spring with open arms.
The author is a researcher with the Institute of Japanese Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences
(China Daily 04/10/2007 page10)