OSAKA – Chinese President Hu Jintao’s trip to Japan this week, the first by a Chinese leader in a decade, was marked by less bitterness about the war and more publicity events aimed at wooing a wary Japanese public.
Behind the lighter tone and Hu’s charm offensive, analysts say, is a desire to improve the overall climate for bilateral relations, even as the former opponents continue to struggle with difficult disputes.
“There are still a lot of problems to be resolved, there are no illusions there,” said Joseph Cheng, a professor of political science at City University of Hong Kong.
But the countries “understand they must contain their problems, not allow the relations to deteriorate,” he said.
Diplomatic relations between Japan and China began recovering after former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s prompt 2006 trip to China, which helped ease tensions provoked by former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s annual visits to war-linked Yasukuni Shrine.
Hu made notably fewer comments about Japan’s invasion of China than did former President Jiang Zemin, who got the Japanese public’s attention during the previous visit in 1998.
During a banquet hosted by the Emperor, Jiang discussed the huge damage inflicted during the war by Japanese troops. The comments drew negative reactions from the Japanese public.
In sharp contrast, Hu did not make explicit references to the war during a speech he made at a banquet hosted by Emperor Akihito on Wednesday. He only said bilateral ties could be seen at a new starting point, when “reviewing the past and looking to the future.”
Hu’s five-day visit was sprinkled with events designed to reach out to the Japanese public. The centerpiece was a speech delivered at Waseda University in Tokyo, Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda’s alma mater, that was broadcast live throughout the country.
A telegenic moment for Hu followed that event during a table tennis rally with Japanese player Ai Fukuhara and Chinese Olympic gold medalist Wang Nan.
Hu’s offer to lend Japan two giant pandas at Japan’s request became the subject of TV talk shows, which treated the issue in a largely positive manner, despite controversy over the costly leasing fees and perceptions that paying them could be construed as financially backing China’s bloody crackdown in autonomy-seeking Tibet.
Even if Hu’s trip succeeds at improving public sentiment, the two countries still face a range of tricky problems.
Hu and Fukuda reported progress in solving the ongoing row over gas exploration rights in the East China Sea, but other issues — including the food-poisoning dispute caused by Chinese-made “gyoza” (dumplings) consumed in Japan, remain unresolved.
“Bilateral areas of cooperation are extensive, and it is only natural that differences occur,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said in Tokyo earlier this week, answering critics who said the trip has produced few concrete results.
“But if both sides can think about issues from a bigger perspective and deal with them appropriately, they can be solved,” Liu said.
The improvement of relations with Japan is important to China, which views their recent plunge as the “most conspicuous failure in Chinese diplomacy” in recent times, according to Cheng.
“If relations go bad, then China would be pushing Japan toward the embrace of the United States and there would be even closer Japan-U.S. security cooperation,” an outcome China does not want, Cheng said.
The Japanese government, on the other hand, came under pressure from the business community when ties with China deteriorated. China is Japan’s largest trading partner, and many Japanese companies have manufacturing bases in the country.
“Both sides understand that the rationale for better relations is there, and so they are steering away from problem areas and are trying to improve the atmosphere,” Cheng said. “This is what they are trying to do at the moment.”
At least one taxi driver in Osaka, one of the cities Hu visited, said he now has a good image of the Chinese leader.
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