Healing old wounds

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 August, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 August, 2008, 12:00am

On August 6, as is customary, the city of Hiroshima marked the anniversary of the dropping of the first atomic bomb, on Japan in 1945. What was unusual was the presence of a representative of China, ambassador Cui Tiankai. Even though Hiroshima every year invites all countries to take part, this was the first time China had accepted. And that, in itself, is a sign that relations between the two countries have entered a new stage.

The US, which dropped the bomb, has not participated in these proceedings and its western allies, Britain and France, have also stayed away. Presumably, this is because the memorial service inevitably portrays Japan not as an aggressor in the second world war but as a victim.

Premier Wen Jiabao , in his visit to Tokyo last year, foreshadowed a new Chinese position by saying that 'the war of aggression against China launched by Japan' was the responsibility of only 'a handful of militarists' while the Japanese people 'were also victims of the war'.

One of the main obstacles to improved Sino-Japanese relations - the dispute over natural resources in the East China Sea - was successfully finessed in June when the two governments announced agreement on a 'joint development zone'. Although details still need to be worked out, the issue has been defused, especially since scientific evidence suggests that the seabed is not as rich in oil and natural gas as previously believed.

Another outstanding issue is that of poisonous dumplings imported from China that caused food poisoning in Japan this year. While the two governments agreed to jointly investigate, the two police forces disagreed, with the Japanese blaming the Chinese exporters and the Chinese saying that the poison could have been introduced in Japan.

Now that issue, too, looks as if it is close to resolution. Beijing has confirmed that a number of Chinese have also suffered from food poisoning after eating the same manufacturer's dumplings and traces of the same pesticide have been found. That being the case, the issue should be well on its way to being resolved.

So, at least for now, there will be no serious outstanding problems between the two sides - except for the fact that many Chinese and Japanese still do not trust each other.

Recent surveys in Japan by the Yomiuri Shimbun and in China by a weekly magazine published by Xinhua showed a wide gap in public opinion in the two countries. Many Japanese people are wary of China due to its growing military power and only one-third of the people surveyed think of the relationship with China as good, while 57 per cent said it was bad.

By contrast, 67 per cent of Chinese viewed the Sino-Japanese relationship positively while 29 per cent said that it was bad.

This means that, despite the positive developments since prime minister Junichiro Koizumi left office in 2005, the Japanese public's assessment of the bilateral relationship has worsened. In China, meanwhile, there has been a noticeable improvement in Japan's image, especially in the wake of Tokyo's despatch of rescue and medical teams to help Sichuan earthquake victims.

On the crucial issue of trust, only 19 per cent of Japanese said they could trust China, while 56 per cent of Chinese said they could trust Japan. Part of the reason for the shift in China is that the government has finally made public information about Japan's aid to China over the past 30 years.

Beijing needs to do more, both in terms of making more information available to its people but, even more importantly, take action to reassure the Japanese people that they have nothing to fear from a rising China. Japan is understandably concerned about its security and its role in a China-dominant region.

The improved relationship needs to be carefully nourished. The government of Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda has taken pains not to take steps that may offend China. However, there is no telling when Mr Fukuda may step down or who his successor will be. Both sides should strengthen the relationship while they can.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator