HONG KONG — If there is a rainbow behind the dark clouds currently blanketing Japan — the country’s gravest crisis since World War II — it could be this: Relations with China, which were at their worst in decades last year, are taking a turn for the better.
The Chinese government was quick to offer its sympathy and support, and the vast majority of the Chinese public endorsed this, despite predominantly negative sentiments about Japan reflected in previous public opinion surveys.
A poll taken last year showed 79 percent of Chinese feeling that Japan cannot be trusted. However, an online survey conducted after the earthquake showed that 1.2 million of 1.5 million respondents backed their government’s efforts to aid Japan.
The triple disaster — earthquake, tsunami and nuclear reactor crisis — offers an opportunity for repairing Sino-Japanese relations just as the 9/11 attack on the United States in 2001 provided an opportunity for China to improve ties with the U.S.
In 2001, then President Jiang Zemin telephoned his American counterpart, George W. Bush, the same day to offer China’s sympathy and its cooperation in the campaign against terrorists.
That helped to reverse a decline in Sino-American relations that was symbolized by the collision earlier that year between a Chinese fighter jet and an American reconnaissance aircraft gathering intelligence along the Chinese coast. The Bush administration had entered office viewing China as America’s next adversary after the demise of the Soviet Union.
Similarly, the current disaster gives China an opportunity to mend a key relationship that went terribly wrong last year after the arrest by Japan of a Chinese fishing boat captain in the vicinity of disputed islands after his trawler allegedly rammed two Japanese coast guard vessels.
Last year was not a high point in Chinese foreign policy, marked as it also was by a steep deterioration in relations with the U.S. and Europe, in particular after the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Liu Xiaobo, a dissident serving an 11-year prison term.
Since then, however, China appears to have adopted a more moderate stance. President Hu Jintao made use of his state visit to Washington in January to increase mutual trust. Most notably, he joined President Barack Obama in criticizing North Korea for its uranium enrichment facility. The Japanese disaster is providing China with a providential opportunity to mend relations on that front as well.
For one thing, it is offering the Chinese public a rare view of Japan: A country whose people are disciplined, stoic and orderly even when under the most extreme stress. While people in China panicked and stocked up on salt thinking that it would protect them from radiation, the Japanese by and large remained calm and uncomplaining, doing what they could to help victims of the disaster.
Accounts of actions by individual Japanese have also touched the hearts of people in China. One story, that of a 59-year-old company manager named Mitsuru Sato who escorted 20 Chinese female interns to safety then returned to look for his own family, only to be swept away by the waters, has been told and retold in China.
In a way, the great Sichuan earthquake of 2008 had set a precedent, with Japan providing material aid and sending a search-and-rescue team. Pictures of Japanese rescue team members paying respect to Chinese bodies in particular helped to enhance the image in China of Japan as a highly cultured society. This time, there is a chance for China not just to improve its image in Japan, but actually to improve bilateral relations.
There is much that can be done, beginning with resolving the dispute over natural resources in the East China Sea. The two countries agreed in principle on joint development in 2008, but in the intervening years, there has been no accord on when and where to begin such development.
Japan has been eager to make a start but China has been dragging its feet. This and other disputes have poisoned the atmosphere. While they have always existed, they had in the past been properly managed.
There are those who think that the current crisis has permanently diminished Japan and that it will no longer be able to compete with China. Be that as it may, Beijing’s policy should be to improve relations with Tokyo rather than to take advantage of a weakened Japan.
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist. E-mail: Frank.firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: FrankChing1@@@