Mission accomplished

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 April, 2007, 12:00am

Premier Wen Jiabao appears to have largely succeeded in making his historic three-day visit to Japan an 'ice-melting' trip.

To a large extent, his success lay in the balanced tone of his address to the Japanese parliament, or Diet - the first such address by a Chinese leader in more than 20 years.

In his speech, which was broadcast live in both Japan and China, Premier Wen struck a conciliatory tone on history, the issue that has bedeviled the Sino-Japanese relationship for a decade.

Instead of asking for more apologies for Japan's invasion and occupation of China in the 1930s and 1940s, he in effect accepted previous statements of remorse by saying: 'The Japanese government and leaders have on many occasions stated their position on the historical issue, admitted that Japan had committed aggression and expressed deep remorse and apology to the victimised countries. The Chinese government and people appreciate the position they have taken.'

This approach contrasted sharply with that of previous Chinese leaders, including former president Jiang Zemin and former premier Zhu Rongji who, when they visited Japan, insisted on discussing the history issue and reminding Japan of its past misdeeds.

In fact, the premier said that only 'a handful of militarists' were responsible for the aggression against China and the Japanese people, too, were victims of the war, so the Chinese people should live in friendship with them.

And, while he never once mentioned the Yasukuni Shrine, where war criminals as well as other Japanese war dead are commemorated, he made it clear that Japanese leaders should not visit the shrine by saying: 'We sincerely hope that the Japanese side will act as it has stated and honour its commitment.'

This suggests that China considers the history chapter closed unless Japan was to reopen it through such acts as shrine visits or textbook changes.

What was even more striking, especially to his Japanese audience, was his open expression of gratitude for Tokyo's economic aid. 'The Chinese people will never forget how Japan has contributed to China's reform and open-door policy and modernisation,' Mr Wen said.

Japan has complained, justifiably, that the Chinese government never told its people about the economic aid - primarily dispensed in low-interest yen loans - provided by Tokyo over the last 28 years. The aid programme is being phased out but, last month, Japan extended China a loan of 62.3 billion yen (HK$4.2 billion) in aid. This time, though, China publicised the event, reporting the news on television.

Still, the chances are that most people in China are not aware of Japan's largess, and that Mr Wen's remarks came as a surprise to them. In a way, the premier's speech was aimed as much at his audience in China as the one in Japan.

After all, anti-Japanese feelings in China run deep, with large-scale demonstrations there two years ago. A recent survey by a Chinese weekly magazine showed that 85 per cent of students said they did not trust Japan. Beijing is no doubt anxious to ameliorate such sentiments as it seeks a better relationship with Tokyo.

In that sense, Mr Wen's remarks can be seen as an appeal to the peoples of both countries to put aside the past.

While major issues, such as the dispute over gas fields in the East China Sea remain unresolved, Mr Wen's trip saw the launching of a high-level dialogue on economy and defence. The two countries also agreed to strengthen co-operation in energy, environmental protection, finance and intellectual property rights.

The exchange of high-level visits, halted for five years during the premiership of Junichiro Koizumi, are resuming. Later this year, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will visit China while President Hu Jintao has been invited to visit Japan next year.

In this environment, it is inconceivable that Mr Abe would visit the Yasukuni Shrine since he knows that it risks jeopardising Japan's relationship with China, a relationship that is so important to both countries.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator. frank.ching@scmp.com