Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji arrives today for a six-day official visit, hoping to improve China’s standing in the eyes of the Japanese people and nurture a new bilateral relationship through enhanced economic cooperation.

Zhu’s visit, which follows the July 1999 visit to Beijing by the late Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, comes after a recent heightening of tensions over Chinese marine research activities and naval operations within Japan’s exclusive economic waters.

When Foreign Minister Yohei Kono visited Beijing in August, the two nations agreed to create a framework for advance notification of research operations in each other’s economic waters, but the details of the plan, such as the scope of the activities, have yet to be hammered out.

During his talks with Zhu on Friday, Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori will address such issues of concern, while the two will reaffirm the importance of building mutual trust and understanding, according to Japanese officials.

They will also review progress on a plan consisting of cooperative steps covering 33 areas agreed to when Chinese President Jiang Zemin visited Tokyo in November 1998, they said.

Progress to date includes the disbursement of 390 billion yen in loans to China in fiscal 1999 and 2000, increased youth exchanges and the launch of a tree-planting program in China.

Mori and Zhu are expected to agree to accelerate the cooperation process through a number of measures, including setting up a hotline between the two leaders.

Mori is also expected to explain Japan’s review process for its official development assistance policy toward China, Japanese officials said.

Japan has provided more than 2 trillion yen in ODA to China over the past 20 years, but a government panel is currently considering revising the generous policy because of concerns over sharp increases in China’s military spending.

Experts say China is fully aware of the increasing opposition to continuing ODA in Japan in light of this and hopes to use this opportunity to restore relations.

“The biggest focus of Zhu’s visit will be how he can project a better image of China among the Japanese,” said Zhu Jianrong, a professor of Chinese studies at Toyo Gakuen University.

Professor Zhu said the premier’s planned appearance on a television program Saturday to converse directly with

Japanese citizens will be a good opportunity to reveal his frank character and ideas, which usually do not reach the Japanese public.

“There is no other leader in China who can appear on a TV program abroad and directly answer people’s questions,” the professor said. “The visit will be very meaningful in preventing the bilateral relationship from deteriorating further.”

Earlier this week, Beijing held a ceremony to commemorate 20 years of Japanese ODA to China and expressed gratitude for the economic assistance, apparently a move to mollify some Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers who say China does not appreciate Japan’s aid.

Japan-China ties have not been rosy since Jiang’s 1998 visit, when he repeatedly criticized Japan for failing to atone for its wartime aggression, an attitude that prompted angry reactions from Japan.

Zhu, speaking to Japanese reporters in Beijing ahead of his trip, has expressed his intention to not bring up issues of history during his visit.

According to professor Zhu, Beijing’s desire to improve bilateral ties stems from its high hopes that Japan will invest in China’s massive development project in its western interior.

The project, which is designed to narrow the economic gap between China’s developed eastern coastal areas and western inland regions, is to be a pillar of China’s domestic policy for the next 50 years and it requires Japanese investment, he explained.

While the Japanese side is likely to urge China to improve its investment environment as a precondition for cooperating in the project, Zhu is expected to call on Japanese companies to take part in the plan when he meets with business leaders Saturday, Japanese officials said.

For Japan’s part, Tokyo hopes to nudge China toward a contract for a high-speed railway linking Shanghai and Beijing, for which Japan is competing against Germany and France.

Germany is already planning to build test facilities for magnetically levitated trains in Shanghai, but Zhu reportedly said Japan should also build test-run sites in Beijing and agreed that Japan remains a candidate for the contract.

China has yet to decide whether to adopt maglevs or Japan’s bullet train system.

Zhu is slated to ride on Japan’s own maglev train Monday, when he visits test facilities in Yamanashi Prefecture. He will also ride a shinkansen Tuesday to visit Kobe.

Ryuichiro Yamazaki, press secretary for the Foreign Ministry, said it is especially important that Zhu directly meet with many people and experience things for himself in Japan.

“It’s not that he will just talk with Prime Minister Mori and go home, but he will have a long stay in Japan to meet with businesspeople, the press and ordinary citizens,” Yamazaki said. “That’s what’s important to boost (bilateral) understanding.”

Beijing hotline set up

Japan and China will set up a hotline to coincide with Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji’s visit to Japan today, government sources said Wednesday.

The hotline between Tokyo and Beijing will open Friday, when Zhu meets Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, the sources said.

The hotline will facilitate dialogue between the two nations’ leaders regardless of whether an emergency has occurred, so the two sides can stay in close contact.

“It is also a politically symbolic gesture” to demonstrate the close relationship between the two countries, a Foreign Ministry source said.

The two countries reached an agreement on establishing the hotline during Chinese President Jiang Zemin’s visit in 1998. The accord was reconfirmed during Foreign Minister Yohei Kono’s trip to China in August.

The hotline will use an exclusive line, the first of its kind, the sources said.

Japan and the United States opened a hotline in 1972, but it used a telex. Japanese and U.S. leaders now use a regular telephone line.

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