Baseball diplomacy brings no home runs
Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda flew home last night with little to show for his four-day visit to China that would distract attention from his domestic political woes and a steep fall in his voter approval rating. Talks with Chinese leaders failed to produce a breakthrough in the long-running dispute over how to exploit natural gas in the East China Sea or resolve other issues, such as mutual mistrust over military build-ups.
That said, it would be a mistake to dismiss his mission as a historical non-event, if only for the significance of its symbolism.
As the son of a former prime minister responsible for a peace treaty with China in 1978, 33 years after the end of the second world war, Mr Fukuda could hardly have been better qualified in Beijing's eyes to take up the ongoing repairs to strains in Sino-Japanese relations.
On becoming prime minister, he ruled out visits to the Yasukuni shrine that honour the war dead, including war criminals - an issue that had chilled relations between the two countries for years. During his trip to China, he also said what his hosts wanted to hear about Japan's position on Taiwan and the need for Japan to reflect on its mistakes, face up to its past aggression and show humility and sympathy to the victims.
However, the enduring symbolic image of the two Asian giants coming to terms over the need to narrow their differences was some baseball diplomacy, with Mr Fukuda and Premier Wen Jiabao decked out in baseball uniforms and tossing a ball around in a state guesthouse gymnasium.
The reality is that while Japan is still Asia's biggest economic power, a lasting improvement in bilateral relations with China remains imperative in its national interests and for the sake of regional stability. Japan's lacklustre economic performance this year would have been worse but for its trade with China (including Hong Kong), which has now surpassed that of Japan's trade with the United States. If predictions of a US economic slowdown prove right, both countries will have an incentive to work even harder on turning symbolism into reality.