China, Japan must build on warming ties

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 January, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 January, 2007, 12:00am

China and Japan would seem to be well on the road to patching up strained relations, if recent top-level contacts between their leaders are any guide. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has met Premier Wen Jiabao twice since taking office four months ago and a third meeting is planned in Tokyo in April.

Feelings run deep, however, and years of animosity will not be wiped away merely through talks. That can come about only through a genuine desire at all levels on both sides to put the past behind them and to work towards unbridled co-operation. In Mr Abe's case, that most immediately means resisting the pressure from nationalist elements within his government. For China, patience and tolerance is the key as the process of ending seven decades of hostility and mistrust can only be gradual.

So far, both sides have followed that formula, with positive results. In recent days alone, the controversial Yasukuni Shrine has altered the text on some of its museum exhibits and a deal on Chinese fishing boats operating in Japanese waters has been struck. There is also talk of warship exchange visits and the number of mainland cities where Japanese visas for tourists can be issued has been increased from four to six.

Given the nature of fractured ties during the term of Mr Abe's predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, these are steps forward. But while they are positive indicators that the new leader's conciliatory approach towards China is bearing fruit, they are no assurance that a permanent shift is in the offing. The reality is that each step forward can just as easily be pushed backwards by a careless remark, off-hand gesture or diplomatic insensitivity. For Chinese, as with Koreans, the wounds of Japanese occupation run deep through the generations and words in themselves are not enough to properly heal them.

That was proven each time Mr Koizumi visited Yasukuni, where war criminals are honoured. No matter how he tried to justify his decision, he was viewed as an antagonist. Every aspect of the nation under his rule, from its school textbooks to its entertainment industry, was under close scrutiny by those looking to find fault with efforts to atone for the past. Naturally, Japan was found wanting - with damaging results for wider issues of conflict, such as disputed territory, fishing and oil and gas exploration rights.

Mr Abe, despite having the same political credentials as Mr Koizumi and having visited Yasukuni before becoming prime minister, has realised there is no gain from sticking doggedly to such an agenda. After all, the benefits of co-operation with China are too great to let them pass by.

Economic integration is already deep, but the potential for further growth would be enhanced through improved diplomatic relations. The threat of North Korea's nuclear weapons and missiles would be allayed for Tokyo with Beijing, Pyongyang's foremost ally, on side. Japan would have a powerful advocate for its bid for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council if it had China's blessing. For East Asia, resolution of disputes over islands and energy reserves would help bring much-needed stability.

These will not be achieved as a result of a state visit, by any single agreement or as the result of a heartfelt apology for Japanese wartime aggression. Rather, they will come about gradually - but only if both sides are willing to respect the delicate nature of the task ahead.

In essence, the onus is on Mr Abe. China must be mindful of the balancing act that the Japanese leader has to perform before his political colleagues and constituents, though; it must seize every olive branch offered.

Thankfully, that script is being faithfully followed. Mr Wen will in three months reciprocate Mr Abe's landmark visit to Beijing after accepting an invitation at a meeting on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations' summit on January 14. From there, on all levels, the co-operation must push ahead. The path to peace has been forged. Now, Mr Abe must avoid the pitfalls.