The 21st Century Committee for Japan-China Friendship held its 14th meeting on China’s Hainan Island Dec. 24-25, and I was among those present. Former Chinese Ambassador to Japan Yang Zhenya, the conference chairman, said he was pleased that the Chinese and Japanese governments were promoting regional cooperation in East Asia. He expressed hope that the two countries’ efforts would produce positive results as soon as possible.

The committee, established in 1984 under an agreement between Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang and Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, is made up of intellectuals from both countries. It meets annually to work out proposals on ways to expand bilateral relations, which it later presents to both governments.

At the December meeting, Chinese delegates expressed strong concern over the contents of history textbooks that were under review by the Education Ministry for use in Japanese schools. The Chinese obsession with wartime history has exacerbated anti-Chinese sentiment in Japan and destabilized bilateral relations.

However, as the conference chairman’s remarks suggest, the meeting stressed cooperation, not confrontation. In particular, positive discussions were held on ways that Japan and China, major players in the region, could create a framework for multilateral cooperation.

China’s increased flexibility reflects changes in the country’s diplomacy in East Asia and its policies toward Japan. Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji, visiting Japan last October, praised the framework being developed for multilateral cooperation in East Asia and expressed hope about Japan’s contributions.

Chinese officials realize that Japanese aid is essential for the country’s economic development, their long-term priority. In a joint bilateral declaration issued in November 1998, China expressed gratitude for that aid for the first time in official documents.

The objective of Japanese aid to China is clear. Initially, Japan tried to help China develop, which Tokyo believed was essential to Asian security and prosperity. Since the late 1990s, when China emerged as a major world power thanks to its economic expansion, Japan has urged China to take on more responsibility as a member of the international community.

Japan has extended 2.68 trillion yen worth of official development assistance to China since 1979, when then Prime Minister Masayoshi Ohira offered Japan’s first yen-based loan to the country. The total accounts for nearly 50 percent of all ODA China has received during that time and more than 30 percent of all investments China has made through the government budget. Furthermore, financing by the Japan Bank for International Cooperation has amounted to 3.42 trillion yen. Thus Japanese aid — which uses public funds — has exceeded 6 trillion yen.

However, since last year, proposals have been made to change policies regarding aid to China. The Foreign Ministry and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party last month published reports calling for curtailment of aid and policy changes. The proposals reflect Japan’s financial difficulties and China’s economic development, the initial purpose of the assistance. At the same time, the reports called for continued Japanese aid to promote self-help by China, since it is, after all, still a developing country.

Japan has effectively used economic aid as an important card in its engagement policy toward China. It cannot afford to give up the card before it acquires an alternative strategy. But as a condition for continuing aid, Japan must have ways of ensuring that China does not use the assistance for military purposes.

Critics have said China has sometimes used Japanese aid to boost its military capabilities. For example, China has allegedly used sections of expressways as emergency runways for military aircraft. China also argues that economic development is essential for military expansion.

A fine line separates economic development and military expansion. The problem is that Japan has failed to create an effective system of preventing China’s use of Japanese aid for military purposes on the basis of cool analyses, but it complains nevertheless about Chinese military expansion.

Chinese oceanographic-research vessels and navy spy boats recently invaded disputed waters that China has proclaimed its exclusive economic zone. Japan protested but failed to take decisive action to prevent the Chinese action. China made the intrusion in anticipation of Japan’s failure to act.

This is very regrettable for a sovereign nation, which must protect itself. Cooperation and deterrence are both necessary elements in Japan’s policy toward China.

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