From ice to nice, expect China-Japan progress

By Zhang Tuosheng (China Daily)
Updated: 2007-05-29 07:32

China-Japan relations have taken a turn for the better since Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's "ice-breaking" visit to China late last year and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao's "ice-melting" journey to Japan last month, after going through twists and turns over the last decade or so.

After the rapprochement in 1972, Sino-Japanese relations made impressive advances. Starting from the mid-1990s, however, the bilateral ties began to zigzag through uncertainties. As a result, friction between the two sides became increasingly intensified and ever more frequent. By the end of 2005, contacts between the top leadership of the two countries were completely suspended, a low point for bilateral relations.

The worsening of the bilateral ties not only did harm to the two nations' strategic interests but also aroused grave international concern.

In October 2006, the new Japanese prime minister paid an official visit to China. Both sides reached consensus on overcoming political obstacles, pushing forward bilateral relations, restoring connections between Chinese and Japanese leaders, evaluating the development roads taken by the two countries, sticking to the approach of jointly developing the East China Sea resources, and building mutually beneficial relations based on common strategic interests.

During the Chinese premier's Japan visit in April, the two sides gained more common ground on handling the major disputes between the two countries. They reached agreement on the basic principles and content of the mutually beneficial strategic relationship and on concrete steps to achieve the goal.

The significant improvement of bilateral relations finds expression in three aspects.

First, the two sides reached consensus on resolving the issue of the Yasukuni Shrine, where Japan's war dead, including 14 Class A war criminals, are honored. Pragmatic approaches to settling the issue have been found.

This constitutes the key to breaking the political stalemate caused by former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's repeated visits to the shrine in the last five years.

The disputes of the two nations over historical issues are not expected to be settled overnight. It is, therefore, in the interest of the two countries to ensure that overall bilateral relations are not harmed by the shrine issue.

Also, China has indicated it has no intention of playing the history card in its relations with Japan.

Second, the two sides have reached consensus on promoting connections between their top leadership. Impressive progress has been made in a short time.

A certain degree of mutual trust between the top leaders plays a unique role in promoting the bilateral ties. Top Chinese and Japanese leaders have made official visits to each other's countries, in addition to their three meetings on different international occasions.

Third, the two sides have reached consensus on building a mutually beneficial strategic relationship, placing bilateral relations on the basis of common interests.

Two years ago, while pointing out that questions revolving around history, Taiwan and disputes over the East China Sea resources were directly responsible for the worsening of bilateral ties, this author made it clear that there were more profound contributing factors: the "strong-versus-strong relationship" that came into being between China and Japan with the end of the Cold War.

Both sides were not sufficiently prepared for this situation or their ideas lagged behind developments. As a result, friction between the two countries became ever more intensified. This eventually led to Sino-Japanese relations becoming marked predominantly by disputes and feuds.

The consensus on building the mutually beneficial strategic relationship marks the major breakthrough in ideas and also a new starting point for bringing about mutual trust.

This also demonstrates that both sides are now determined to put common interest above everything else. They have discarded the fossilized idea that "no two rival tigers can exist on the same mountain."

Accompanying this turn for the better in these three major respects, affairs in many fields have started to improve. Cooperation between China and Japan in resolving the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue, for example, has been strengthened. Also, China has promised to offer its help on resolving the question of the kidnapped Japanese citizens. Negotiations on joint tapping of the East China Sea resources have entered the stage of discussing specific development plans.

Japan, on its part, has expressed its understanding of China's grave concerns on the Taiwan question. It has pledged to stick to the principles embodied in the China-Japan Joint Communique, the China-Japan Treaty of Peace and Friendship, and the China-Japan Joint Declaration and to refrain from supporting Taiwan independence.

The program of Chinese and Japanese scholars jointly studying history has been formally launched. Military ties between the two countries have also been renewed and promoted.

The major turning point in Chinese-Japanese relations did not come from nowhere.

First, continuous deterioration of China-Japan relations have done serious damage to both countries' strategic interests. All kinds of feuds kept cropping up in almost all areas over the previous five years. Antagonism grew between the Chinese and Japanese public. And each side grew increasingly suspicious of the other's strategic intentions.

In 2005, people began to worry that Sino-Japanese relations, which were then described as "icy politically but warm economically", could move in the direction of icy both politically and economically. The consequences would be disastrous if that possibility became a reality. So, breaking the political stalemate as soon as possible became the common wish of both sides.

Second, worsening of China-Japan relations was a cause of concern for the international community. The two countries' falling afoul of each other not only weakened East Asian multilateral cooperation and made reform of the United Nations all the more difficult but also seriously tipped the triangular balance between China, Japan and the United States.

East Asian countries would never want to be forced to choose between China and Japan. On the part of the United States, deterioration of Sino-Japanese relations was poised to push the US-Japan alliance into a position of confrontation with China. At the same time, orchestration between the US-ROK (Republic of Korea) alliance and the US-Japanese alliance would be rendered difficult (ROK's stance on historical issues is similar to China's).

Third, as a matter of fact, both Chinese and Japanese governments - the Chinese government in particular - have been making efforts to clear away political obstacles and improve bilateral ties since 2005.

After all these efforts were thwarted by Koizumi's visit to the Yasukuni Shrine in the capacity of Japanese prime minister in 2005, the two sides still kept the channels of communication open in 2006, in extremely difficult situations.

However, we should see that the improvement in Sino-Japanese relations still rests on vulnerable foundations. The three big issues that constitute the root causes of friction are still there: Taiwan, history and the East China Sea. The antagonism between the Chinese and Japanese public, stemming from continuous worsening of bilateral relations, will not be gone overnight. Furthermore, the profound strategic mistrust of the two sides toward each other is not expected to disappear quickly.

In view of this, the primary task for China and Japan is to consolidate the fruits brought by their common efforts to improve bilateral relations and make the improvement irreversible.

Both sides must fully realize that some problems, if not handled properly, could again poison the mended bilateral ties. For instance, the Taiwan question could assert itself again with the 2008 Taiwan "presidential" elections approaching. Both sides should be on the alert over this.

After repeated discussion over the last six months or so, the two sides have reached a three-pronged consensus on building a mutually beneficial strategic relationship.

First, the two sides have decided on the basic principle of the mutually beneficial strategic relationship. With this principle, China and Japan should contribute to the peace, stability and development of Asia and the world through bilateral, regional and international cooperation. The two sides are expected to realize their own interests while expanding common interests.

Second, the two sides have clearly defined the basic content of the mutually beneficial strategic relationship: supporting peaceful development and promoting mutual political trust; deepening mutually beneficial cooperation; strengthening military dialogue and exchanges; promoting cultural exchanges to nurture mutual understanding and friendship between the two peoples.

Third, the two sides have mapped out specific steps for these purposes. They are: improving and strengthening dialogue mechanisms; strengthening mutually beneficial cooperation in areas including energy resources, environmental protection, information technology and banking; strengthening cooperation in regional and international affairs, particularly United Nations reform and the Six-Party Talks.

Some of these steps are of pioneering significance, such as launching the high-level economic dialogue mechanisms, launching mutual naval visits, strengthening defense liaison mechanisms.

Besides, one important signal is worth noting. China has made it clear that it expects to see Japan playing a greater constructive role in international affairs.

The author is a researcher with China Foundation for International and Strategic Studies

(China Daily 05/29/2007 page10)

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