The visit of Japanese Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada was hailed by Chinese international relations analysts as a big step forward in bilateral relations and were expected to shore up domestic support for Japan's beleaguered Prime Minister Taro Aso, who already ranks among the most unpopular leaders in Japan's postwar history.
Hamada wrapped up his two-day visit to China on Saturday, in the latest sign of warming relations between the two countries.
The first visit by Japan's top defense official in six years, Hamada and his Chinese counterpart Liang Guanglie agreed that this year Chinese naval ships will visit Japan and Liang will make an official trip as well, as part of a greater military exchange program.
Also outlined in a press communique issued on Friday after a meeting in the Chinese capital between the defense ministers, the two sides will explore ways to have exchanges between the Chinese army and Japanese Ground Self-Defense Forces.
"The bilateral military exchanges are becoming more and more frequent. From navy ship visits to reciprocal visits by defense chiefs, the two countries are now discussing the possibility of exchanges between land forces. It is really an important progress and the increased dialogue will help dispel mistrust," said Chen Yan, an analyst on China-Japan relations and senior writer of Beijing-based Economy magazine.
The upcoming Chinese ship visit would be the latest in a series of exchanges that have helped thaw years of longstanding mistrust. A Chinese warship made a port of call in Japan in November 2007, followed by a reciprocal visit by a Japanese destroyer in June of last year. Both visits were the first of their kind since World War II.
Hamada's visit is the first by Japan's defense chief since Shigeru Ishiba visited China in 2003 as director-general of what was then the Defense Agency, which was upgraded to a ministry in 2007. His visit followed an official trip by former Chinese defense minister Cao Gangchuan in August 2007, the first visit by a Chinese defense minister to Japan in nine years.
Recalling difficulties in bilateral military communications in the past, Chen stressed the importance of building a direct link for the two sides to talk in case of disputes and conflicts.
"Previously there was no communication at all. Hopefully, the resumption in communications will help our confidence-building effort."
He said that the thaw in military relations came as a result of sound economic and political ties.
"Our economic relations have consolidated, while political ties are relatively stable now," Chen said, noting that China is Japan's biggest trade partner, while Japan is China's third largest.
Yang Bojiang at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR) also said that it is important for the two sides to have high-level dialogues.
"Hamada's visit could help resume military exchanges that were suspended in the wake of former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's visits to Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine, a place that honors Class-A war criminals," he said.
Researcher Gao Hong at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) agreed: "As a sensitive field, military cooperation between China and Japan has always lagged behind political and economic exchanges."
Chen expected that mutual trust between the two militaries will not come easy. "If the two countries have no military conflicts in the next 20 years, then we can possibly say the two sides have really achieved mutual trust."
He adds that mutual trust in military fields could contribute to economic development. "Mistrust had led to huge military budget," observed Chen. "If we can have mutual trust, military budgets will shrink significantly and the money can be invested in education and social security instead."
In the short term, however, Aso will benefit from the improved military relations with China, said Chen.
"With Japan's domestic economic and political policies in a mess, Aso has no choice but to look overseas to get a silver lining for its policy." Currently Aso's public support has dropped below 15 percent but he insisted that he will not resign.
DPRK rocket launch
Japan's Kyodo News reported on Saturday that during talks the two defense ministers called for "restraint" in the Korean peninsula.
While Japan asked China to urge Pyongyang restraint, Liang said "it would be best if the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) did not fire" the rocket, and urged countries such as Japan to "take a coolheaded attitude" on the issue, Kyodo reported.
The DPRK has said it will launch a communications satellite into orbit between April 4 and 8. Tokyo believes it is a long-range missile test and has warned it will shoot down any missile headed for its territory, while Pyongyang said it would regard any interception as an act of war.
Chen contended that Japan will use the development as an excuse to deploy interceptors.
"Japan has insisted that what the DPRK will launch is a missile instead of a satellite, without any concrete evidence. The reason is that the country wants to make use of the event to deploy long-coveted interceptors," said Chen.
However, the possibility of a Japanese interception appears slim.
Yang from CICIR outlined three reasons against the chances of an interception. "First, Japan is banned from intercepting by its pacifist constitution unless it can be proved that a DPRK missile will land within Japanese territory. Secondly, Japan has no explicit support from the United States, whose intelligence agencies believe the DPRK will launch a satellite instead of a missile. Thirdly, Japan does not have the adequate technology for a successful interception."
His view was echoed by Liu Jiangyong, a professort of international relations at Tsinghua University, saying that the Japanese constitution stipulates the country will counterattack only if it is under attack, and it is unlikely for the DPRK to initiate an attack on Japan under the current circumstances.
Chen believed that Japan is in a dilemma on whether it should shoot down the DPRK rocket or not. If it does intercept, the DPRK may retaliate by shooting down any future satellite launched by Japan. If it does not intercept, Japanese government will further anger the public, who are in favor of intercepting.
During their talks, Liang also mentioned China's intention to build an aircraft carrier, Kyodo quoted an anonymous Japanese government official as saying.
Liang told Hamada that China is the only major nation in the world that has no aircraft carriers, in a clear sign for the first time by a defense minister that China will build an aircraft carrier in the future, according to the report.
"China has a formidable task of protecting its vast sea territory," said Liang.
Gao at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences strongly supported the proposal. He explained that with an increasing economic clout, a country as big as China is entitled to develop carriers to protect its interests.
"The accusation that China has a huge military budget is totally groundless. The amount is small relative to the size of its population. I hope all countries can understand China's desire to improve its defense system," he said.
China's defense budget for 2009 is 480.7 billion yuan ($70.2 billion), accounting for 1.4 per cent of China's gross domestic product, announced parliamentary spokesman Li Zhaoxing on March 4. That compared to 4.0 percent for the United States and 2.0 percent for Britain and France.
He pointed out that Japan recently commissioned its largest helicopter-carrying destroyer similar in design to a small aircraft carrier. The 197-m long, 13,950-ton Hyuga can carry 11 anti-submarine patrol helicopters on its deck.
"Obviously it is targeted at China," said Gao, noting that only China has submarines in the region.
Under Japan's post-war pacifist constitution, it is banned from using or threatening force in international disputes. However, the Japanese Self Defence Forces (SDF) is one of the best-funded armies in the world.
Japan's defense spending for the fiscal year of 2009 starting in April is 4,774.1 billion yen ($49.8 billion), or $383.1 per capita, compared with $54 per capita for China, according to the Xinhua News Agency.