China and Japan tiptoe into a 'warm spring' By Jing-dong Yuan
MONTEREY, California - Chinese President Hu Jintao concluded a five-day visit
to Japan at the weekend. Almost a decade since the last state visit by his
predecessor Jiang Zemin, this one went smoothly and had all the signs of a
"warm spring" in bilateral relations.
Hu went to Japan at a time when both countries need to reassess and reassure
each other as ties between Asia's two major powers continue to grow and become
ever more complex and occasionally strained.
On the economic front, bilateral trade reached US$236 billion in
2007, making China Japan's largest trading partner, replacing the United
States. Japanese investment also registered rapid growth last, reaching $6
billion. There are 20,000 Japanese enterprises in China and economic
interdependence is deepening.
Beijing and Tokyo are also making efforts to restore the political trust that
was lost during the administration of Junichiro Koizumi, when summit meetings
were indefinitely suspended due to his controversial visits to the Yasukuni
Shrine, a shrine dedicated mainly to the spirits of soldiers and which includes
the names of war criminals.
Former prime minister Shinzo Abe's "ice-breaking" trip to China in October
2006, right after he assumed office and broke the tradition of Japanese prime
ministers always undertaking their first visits to the United States, paved the
way for the two countries to re-engage at the highest political level. Premier
Wen Jiabao's "ice-thawing" trip to Japan in April 2007 further consolidated the
But the relationship remains fragile as territorial disputes, food safety
issues, and rising nationalism in both countries cast a shadow over the future
of relations and threaten long-term regional peace and stability. Within this
context, Hu's visit to Japan was significant in both symbolic and substantive
Hu's visit coincided with the 30th anniversary of the signing of the
Sino-Japanese Treaty of Peace and Friendship. The year 1978 also marked the
year when China embarked on the path of economic reform and opening up, and the
beginning of extensive Japanese involvement in Chinese economic development,
either through bilateral trade, or via official development assistance, or
Symbolism and anniversary aside, Hu's trip could chart a new course in
bilateral relations. During the visit the two governments issued a major
political document that stresses their determination to build a "mutually
beneficial strategic partnership" toward the 21st century. Both sides agree to
establish dialogue and expand cooperation in five major areas.
The first is political trust. This includes regular summit meetings, high-level
visits, and functional consultation on foreign policy, security and issues of
mutual interest. The second relates to exchanges between the Chinese and
Japanese people, in particular among the young generations. This is of crucial
importance as the future of bilateral relations is in the hands of the young
people of both countries.
While continued economic ties and expanding trade remain important, Beijing and
Tokyo are also seeking cooperation in energy and environment, as well as in the
protection of intellectual property rights, food safety and financial health.
What is significant is both are determined to resolve territorial disputes in
the East China Sea.
China and Japan are now looking beyond their bilateral relationship to address
regional and global issues, including efforts to solve the North Korean nuclear
issue through the six-party talks and climate change, poverty and disease,
energy security and environmental preservation.
Hu's visit has set the markers for bilateral relations in the coming years. To
maintain the momentum and achieve the goals set out in the joint statement, the
two countries need to address a whole range of concrete issues and concerns.
For Japan, China's rise not just in economic terms but also reflected in the
military buildup and growing political influence in the region raises the
question whether Beijing has the ambitions and is actually working toward
replacing Japan as the region's new hegemon.
China likewise is concerned with the enhanced US-Japan security alliance and
Tokyo's pursuit of a normal power status, including the amendment to the peace
constitution. The recent Diet decision to allow military space activities,
coupled with the dispatching of Japanese Self-Defense Forces personnel
overseas, only reinforce such concerns.
Nationalism in both countries is running high. The history issue has currently
been placed under control but has not been resolved. While Beijing and Tokyo
promise to turn the East China Sea into one of peace, cooperation and
friendship, specific issues remain regarding demarcation and delimitation of
the boundary and how joint development can be undertaken.
Better communication and dialogue require that the media in both countries make
greater efforts in promoting and publicizing the positive aspects in bilateral
relations while objectively report and avoid inflaming controversial issues and
It is in the so-called non-traditional security areas that China and Japan can
and should pursue greater cooperation. On energy efficiency, environmental
protection, climate change, poverty elimination, disease control, and sustained
development, China and Japan, either as the world's top economies or ranking
energy consumers, can definitely make unique contribution to the world's
Hu's visit continues the recently stabilizing bilateral relationship between
Asia's two major powers. A cooperative and stable Sino-Japanese relationship
serves the interests of the region. The United States welcomes such
developments and efforts, as fracture and rivalry between China and Japan are
contrary to Washington's interest in the region's continued economic growth and
Dr Jing-dong Yuan is director of East Asia Non-proliferation Program at
the James Martin Center for Non-proliferation Studies and associate professor
of International Policy Studies at the Monterey Institute of International