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Sunday’s meeting between Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Chinese President Hu Jintao — the first in more than a year — proved once again that history remains the biggest thorn in the side of Japan-China relations. Unless historical disputes are resolved from a broad perspective, mistrust between Tokyo and Beijing will likely continue, with negative implications for stability in Asia and the rest of the world.

The two nations supposedly put their unfortunate past behind them more than three decades ago, in 1972, when they normalized relations. Yet their political ties remain fragile in striking contrast to their robust economic relations. Indicative of the low-key political dialogue is the fact that there have been no summit-level exchanges over the past three years.

The primary historical dispute centers on Mr. Koizumi’s annual visits to Yasukuni Shrine, the Tokyo memorial to Japan’s war dead that is regarded by many as a residual symbol of Japanese militarism before and during World War II. It was, inevitably, the main topic at Sunday’s meeting held in Santiago, Chile, following the summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum. However, the one-hour session, the first since October 2003, produced no progress on the issue.

The leaders of Japan and China merely talked past each other. Mr. Hu said official visits to Yasukuni by Japanese leaders have created a “political obstacle” in Japan-China relations, and requested that Mr. Koizumi stop visiting the shrine. Mr. Koizumi said his visits there are intended to “express sympathy” for the nation’s war dead and renew its “no-war pledge.”

In the past, Mr. Hu has taken a rather moderate stand on Yasukuni and other historical issues compared with the hardline position of his predecessor, Mr. Jiang Zemin. During an earlier meeting, for example, Mr. Hu made no direct mention of the shrine, giving only a veiled warning against wounding the feelings of people in Asian countries that had suffered from Japan’s military campaigns.

Presumably, persistent anti-Japanese domestic sentiment is driving Mr. Hu to get tough toward Japan. In fact, his hardline statement this time — an explicit request that Mr. Koizumi stop paying homage to Yasukuni — underlines a measure of assertiveness in Chinese foreign policy. If the dispute is allowed to fester, the political relations between the two nations will remain chilly or, worse, become even more unsettling.

But finding a mutually acceptable solution will not be easy. Since taking office in April 2001, Mr. Koizumi has visited Yasukuni once a year, ignoring strong reactions from China and South Korea. He has effectively approved of the enshrining of convicted World War II Class-A war criminals, saying he has “no feeling of resistance” to offering prayers before them. He appears determined to visit the shrine again next year. There is a body of opinion here, both in the government and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, that repeated Chinese criticisms of Mr. Koizumi’s Yasukuni visits constitute “interference in Japan’s domestic affairs.”

Japan has made attempts to resolve the issue. A government-appointed panel, for example, has proposed the construction of a nonreligious national memorial for the war dead and the separate enshrining of Class-A war criminals. But because these proposals lack the solid backing of public opinion, they remain on the drawing board.

All said and done, however, the fact remains that Yasukuni Shrine not only carries heavy historical baggage as the moral backbone of Japanese imperialism but also enshrines wartime leaders convicted by an international war-crimes tribunal. Consequently, despite their public expressions of remorse over the nation’s militaristic past, criticism is bound to arise — in Japan as well as in neighboring nations — whenever Japanese leaders visit the shrine in an official capacity.

The Yasukuni issue is an albatross round the neck of Japan’s Asia diplomacy. It must be removed one way or another to establish future-oriented relations with our Asian neighbors, particularly China. Given China’s close ties to North Korea, good relations between Tokyo and Beijing are essential to the maintenance of security in Northeast Asia, particularly in regard to resolving the nuclear standoff with Pyongyang.

The Koizumi-Hu meeting was not a flop, however. Perhaps constructive dialogue can begin when the two sides state clearly what they have to say. In this sense, it is encouraging that the two leaders reaffirmed the importance of developing bilateral relations in a forward-looking manner. The window of cooperation remains open.

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