A chance to strengthen Sino-Japanese ties

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 28 December, 2007, 12:00am

Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda's summit in Beijing today with President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao does not break new ground. His predecessor, Shinzo Abe, broke the ice in relations with such a visit 14 months ago. Nor are any of the thorny issues hampering full ties with Japan likely to be publicly discussed; domestic issues on both sides dictate that the talks be non-controversial and friendly.

Whatever the historic precedents and constraints, however, the meetings are nonetheless important for the two nations. They are a continuation of the warm relations fostered by Mr Hu and Mr Abe, embraced by the president and Mr Fukuda and now firmly on track to eventually join the nations in a partnership. Only through concerted dialogue can this happen. Mutual trust has to be built, and this will take time, given the obstacles.

Setting aside decades of animosity over territorial disputes, war-time history and regional rivalry will not be easy. Negotiations, such as those over gas fields in the East China Sea, will be hard-fought, and it is only through respect and developing a good rapport by meetings at all levels can this be achieved. Such effort was plainly on show earlier this month when, on the 70th anniversary of the Japanese military's massacre of civilians at Nanjing, Beijing's rhetoric was noticeably muted.

Mr Fukuda has made a point of putting China top of his nation's international agenda since taking office in September. Beijing's commitment was shown when Mr Wen became the first Chinese leader to visit Japan since the second world war and, in a groundbreaking gesture of goodwill by both nations, addressed the Japanese parliament. The four-day visit by Mr Fukuda moves the process a step further, and it will be taken to even greater heights when Mr Hu reciprocates in the coming months.

In between, leaders are using every opportunity to hold talks, such as on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations' summit in Singapore last month. A Chinese warship also made history when it dropped anchor off Tokyo, and top-level economic talks were held in Beijing involving the most cabinet officials since diplomatic ties were restored in 1972. But as promising as these developments are, each is only an incremental step on the still tenuous path to mutual co-operation. The missing of a target this year to hammer out an agreement over the gas fields highlights the difficulties.

An unravelling of the work already done can happen easily. Former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi sank relations to post-war lows with repeated visits to the Yasukuni shrine, which honours Japan's war dead. And textbooks downplaying atrocities committed during Japan's colonial era sparked protests on the mainland.

Mr Fukuda's dedication to reconciliation means such misjudgments while he is premier are unlikely. But with his popularity low amid a pensions scandal and the Japanese economy performing poorly, his longevity at the helm cannot be guaranteed. Nor in a year when Beijing is hosting the Olympic Games will China be making grandiose gestures. Economic deals are likely to be struck, as should be expected given the strength of the trade relationship, but other agreements on long-standing disputes will come only with tough bargaining.

The respect and trust shown by both sides is encouraging. Today's summit has to strengthen what has been achieved and clearly point the way ahead for closer ties.