JINAN, China — Shinzo Abe’s trip to China as prime minister in October 2006 was dubbed “the ice-breaking trip” to mend diplomatic relations damaged by predecessor Junichiro Koizumi. Then came Premier Wen Jiabao‘s “thawing-ice visit” to Japan last April.
Now relations have reached what Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda described as “the coming of spring” during his first official trip to China from Thursday to Sunday.
Relations between the region’s two powerhouses were chilled during the five years Koizumi was in office because of his annual visits to contentious Yasukuni Shrine, which enshrines convicted Class-A war criminals.
Fukuda’s four-day visit was full of events marked by exceptional hospitality, including a joint news conference Friday by Fukuda and Wen — believed to be the first held together by the two countries’ leaders — and playing catch with a baseball on Saturday.
Japanese flags were raised along the streets near Tiananmen Square in Beijing, and at the hotels in Beijing and Shandong Province where Fukuda stayed.
Analysts are amazed at how dramatically bilateral ties have improved in such a short period. But at the same time, they see the friendly mood demonstrated at the top level as an indication both governments are trying to keep strong public emotions — that can quickly overheat — under wraps.
“This time, there is a welcoming mood among Chinese people and we see Hinomaru flags flying there,” said Zhu Jianrong, a professor of Chinese studies at Toyo Gakuen University in Tokyo. It was only less than three years ago that the Japanese flags were burned in a series of massive anti-Japan rallies in China over the Japanese government’s authorization of a revisionist history textbook, he said.
During Fukuda’s meetings first with Wen and then with President Hu Jintao, both sides agreed to cooperate on a variety of issues ranging from the environment, energy and personnel exchanges, including between the Chinese military and the Self-Defense Forces.
A senior Foreign Ministry official said before Fukuda left on his trip that the wide-ranging discussions on the agenda were indicative of the two countries sharing broad areas of common interest.
“There was a time when there was almost no dialogue between the leaders of the two nations. Holding continuous discussions is important to build mutual trust,” the official said. “Media reports focus too much on specific bilateral issues such as the row over gas exploration rights in the East China Sea, but the two countries’ relations are not only about that.”
Indeed, Fukuda and Wen avoided focusing too much on disputes. Instead they stressed the importance of improving Japan-China relations for the development of Asia and the world.
Toyo Gakuen’s Zhu said that Japan and China had enough of sour relations and their negative impact on both countries as well as other Asian countries when Koizumi was in office between 1996 and 2001.
During Friday’s joint news conference with Wen, Fukuda acknowledged that there are problems between the two nations but said he will never let them damage the overall bilateral relationship.
“The leaders of Japan and China are well aware that bilateral relations could easily turn out differently depending on their attitude toward each other,” Zhu said.
He added that they are making efforts to reach a higher stage where they can maintain friendly relations even if there are obstacles.
The gas and oil exploration rights in the East China Sea will be a litmus test on how they can overcome long-standing differences without damaging relations.
The two sides have agreed on joint development but remain far apart on the location as the dispute involves differences over where each nation’s sea boundaries lie.
Another senior Foreign Ministry official said Tokyo and Beijing have made progress in defining the area for joint development but were not able to reach an accord this time.
The two sides hope to do so by spring, at the time of Hu’s planned visit to Japan.
Fukuda also made a concession about Taiwan by saying for the first time that he would not support a planned referendum in Taiwan in March on seeking United Nations membership.
Fukuda’s personal background has helped to warm relations with China. When his father, Takeo Fukuda, was prime minister about 30 years ago, the elder Fukuda spearheaded an effort to sign the 1978 Japan-China bilateral peace and friendship treaty.
Wen and Hu raised this story several times during Fukuda’s visit, conveying their amity as they cited the old saying that “Chinese people who drink water will never forget the kindness of people who worked hard to dig a well.”
Sino-Japanese ties appear to be entering one of their best periods, but Satoshi Amako, dean of the graduate school of Asia-Pacific studies at Waseda University in Tokyo, said a solid foundation still hasn’t been built.
He said the Fukuda administration’s policy on Asia has yet to be put to the test, and relations with Beijing will be affected by how long Fukuda remains in power.
“Despite efforts by Japan and China to deepen ties, the relationship between the two countries is still fragile and includes various delicate problems that can easily turn into confrontation,” Amako said.