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China-Japan relations

Tokyo must seize chance of war anniversary to mend ties with China

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 April, 2015, 6:27am
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 February, 2017, 4:55pm

It says something about recent Sino-Japan relations that Premier Li Keqiang has just had a rare, ice-breaking meeting with a visiting Tokyo political figure. Since the frosty encounter between President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the sidelines of the Apec conference in Beijing in November, high-profile contacts have been few and far between. But signs of warming are mounting, including the resumption of parliamentary exchanges this month, a series of meetings to reduce the risk of territorial conflict in the East China Sea, more Chinese tourism to Japan and greater economic cooperation.

There remained one cloud on the horizon approaching the 70th anniversary of Japan's defeat in the second world war, a sensitive time for bilateral relations, which China is to mark with a military parade in September. It was the annual spring festival - tomorrow, Wednesday and Thursday - at the Yasukuni shrine to Japan's war dead. It is a time when conservative supporters expected Abe to pay homage in person. It has been made known that Abe will not visit the shrine, in order to avoid angering former foes and incurring the displeasure of friends. Instead he will send a tree offering to appease the conservatives before attending an Asian-African conference in Indonesia on Wednesday. This discretion is critical to warming relations. Abe's previous visit to the shrine, in December 2013, not only drew immediate rebukes from China and South Korea, but also prompted the United States to express rare "disappointment" with its ally for exacerbating regional tensions.

Li's meeting in Beijing was with former Japanese chief cabinet secretary Yohei Kono who, in 1993, issued a statement conceding that the Japanese Imperial Army forced foreign women to work in military-run brothels during the war. Li noted that at that time Japan had shown a "correct" understanding of history - a hint that more concessions about historical issues would pay dividends. At the end of the day, the world's second- and third-largest economies have to be able to work together, particularly at a time of economic uncertainty. It may be optimistic to expect them to come to agreement on historical issues any time soon. As in the past, they may need to put disputes to one side so they can move ahead. Meanwhile, the coming anniversary presents Abe with an opportunity to mend ties with China and South Korea that should not be wasted. So we trust the warming signs will continue.