Hu Jintao

Hope springs eternal, but cloud of uncertainty hangs over Hu's visit

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 May, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 02 May, 2008, 12:00am


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Beijing and Tokyo strive to make the president's trip to Japan a success

When President Hu Jintao arrives next week for a historic visit to Japan, he might remember an old Chinese saying that spring is a time when, beneath the warmth of the surface, you get an unexpected chill.

The visit will be the first by a Chinese president in a decade and only the second ever. This alone speaks volumes about the troubled relationship between East Asia's two major powers.

Ties have warmed in the past few years after hitting lows when Junichiro Koizumi was the Japanese prime minister. This thaw in the relationship began with an 'ice-breaking' trip to Beijing in 2006 by his successor, Shinzo Abe. Premier Wen Jiabao repaid the visit last year in a trip hailed as 'ice-melting'. Both sides hope that by the time Mr Hu arrives in Tokyo on Tuesday, relations will have emerged from the long winter and blossomed into full spring.

But there have been unexpected setbacks in recent months. The Japanese public's mood towards China has been swayed by the food-safety scares caused by tainted Chinese products and the unrest in Tibet.

'The timing of his visit is bad,' said China watcher Yukio Wani, a Japanese journalist and former history teacher. 'The perception of the Japanese towards China has hit a new low. The public mood has changed.'

Tensions also flared as pro-Tibet activists and Japanese citizens scuffled with Chinese supporters in Nagano during the Japanese leg of the Olympic torch relay last week. Six men were arrested and four were sent to hospital. Negative comments and reports on China, relatively scarce several months ago, again dominated the media.

The two issues stirred grievances because they evoked old images of an irresponsible, irrational and authoritarian Chinese government.

'For the tainted [Chinese] food products case, I think the best solution is for the two sides to organise a joint and thorough investigation,' said Satoshi Amako, director of the Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies at Waseda University. 'But in February, the Chinese side unilaterally announced they had finished the investigation and the fault was not theirs. It gave the impression that the Chinese government does not care about the safety [of Japanese people].'

Although these issues may cloud Mr Hu's visit, many Japanese politicians and analysts believe the trip will still achieve some success, simply because the foundation for Sino- Japanese relations remains solid and both sides want to improve ties.

Economically, China and Japan are more closely integrated than ever. Politically, issues such as global warming, the energy crisis and credit crunch require diligence by both sides. Social exchanges have also picked up steadily. Last year alone, Japan's National Tourist Organisation figures showed 943,000 mainlanders visited Japan - a 16 per cent increase from 2006 - and ranks third behind only South Korea and Taiwan. Learning to speak Putonghua has also become popular in Japan.

'This is the general trend and it has become a part of our everyday life,' said Professor Amako. 'It's no longer a question of if we like each other; it is a question of how we should learn to accommodate each other because - like it or not - we are going to stay [in each other's lives].'

As the approval rating of Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda dropped to a record low of 26 per cent last month, based mostly on domestic troubles, he seeks to rebuild his government's image by making a diplomatic success of Mr Hu's visit.

'Mr Hu is the first Chinese state leader to come to Japan in a long time. This is unnatural, given we are such close neighbours and our economies are so closely linked,' said Nobuto Hosaka, a Social Democratic Party legislator. 'The Sino-Japanese relationship is now on the mend and this is the wish of the majority of Japanese people. The Fukuda government sees [China policy] as one of the bright spots [of its administration].'

Wani believes that while Mr Fukuda will raise the Tibet issue with Mr Hu, he will not push too hard.

'The public mood changes from time to time,' Wani said. 'After the Olympics, people's attention will shift elsewhere. And the public's perception could be very different from political reality. A statesman should think from a long-term perspective and rise above public sentiment.'

Professor Amako said the two governments would set aside controversial issues, such as territorial and gas field disputes in the East China Sea, and focus on common ground.

'What is important is that we need to build a trust mechanism that can help us solve these problems,' he said, adding that the friction generated by exchanges on such issues as the food safety crisis was normal.

The Fukuda government will also be eager to get China's support for the forthcoming Group of Eight leaders' summit in Hokkaido in July, at which the world economy and climate change will be the major issues.

Professor Amako said Japan would gain real prestige if it could achieve a deal on global greenhouse gas emissions or get the major economies to agree on emissions cuts.

While China is not a G8 member, its growing influence in global affairs makes its participation a key to the summit's success. That is one reason Mr Fukuda is expected to raise the climate change issue with Mr Hu.

Tokyo wants Beijing to play a more active role in the post-2012 emissions-cut framework. If Japan can persuade China to cut its greenhouse gas emissions, it will be a coup.

Mr Hu is also eager to make the trip a success. Critics have often cited the example of his predecessor, Jiang Zemin , whose visit to Japan in 1998 was considered a failure, as Mr Jiang could not achieve a breakthrough in areas such as wartime history in the last century and Taiwan's status.

The Chinese side wants to avoid a repeat of that visit. Beijing is keen to forge a new joint communique with Tokyo and get the Japanese government to agree on a set of principles that will govern the future development of bilateral ties, such as asking Japan to recognise Taiwan as part of the People's Republic of China.

Japan so far has hinted that it will not budge on Taiwan. Tokyo says it 'respects and understands' Beijing's position on Taiwan and does not support the island joining the United Nations under the name of Taiwan. But in Japanese, 'respect' is not the same as 'recognise', and there is a vast difference between 'not support' and 'oppose'.

Still Mr Hosaka, the Social Democratic legislator, is optimistic that some sort of common understanding can be reached. 'I certainly hope we can renew the outdated joint [communique] and include new elements in it,' he said.

Growing closer

More mainlanders are visiting Japan each year

Last year, the country received 943,000 visitors from the mainland, an increase over the 2006 total of