Recent mass anti-Japanese protests in Chinese cities have plunged Sino-Japanese relations to their lowest since diplomatic ties were normalized in 1972. Stones thrown by demonstrators damaged the Japanese Embassy in Beijing on April 9. Japanese-owned businesses in other cities were likewise attacked, and three Japanese students were hurt. Television news footage showed Chinese police doing nothing to stop the attack on the embassy.

The Treaty of Vienna obligates signatory nations, under Article 22, to take all possible measures to protect foreign diplomatic missions. China contravened this rule.

Naturally Japan demanded a Chinese apology and compensation for damage. China rejected the demand, saying the protests stemmed from Japan’s historical perceptions. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman stated that China was not responsible for the trouble.

China should strictly apply the rule of law. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi urged China to prevent such trouble from recurring, saying Beijing should be aware of its responsibility to protect the safety of Japanese nationals in the country.

The protests reflected the anti-Japanese instruction that Chinese schools have delivered since the 1980s as well as growing public discontent over the widening gap between rich and poor and the rampant corruption among high officials amid China’s economic boom. Rioting has been reported in some rural areas. If the problem is left unsolved, China’s international image could suffer ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Although disputes over perceptions of history have dampened Sino-Japanese political ties, economic relations are often described as hot. Last year, China became Japan’s largest trading partner, with bilateral trade growing to 22 trillion yen. Active Japanese business investment in China is contributing to the Chinese economic boom. Expanding bilateral economic relations benefit both countries.

In December, an East Asian summit will be held in Malaysia. Sino-Japanese partnership is crucial if regional cooperation is to advance. Now is the time for Japanese and Chinese leaders to begin strategic dialogue on issues that will be of mutual concern a decade from now. Japan and China greeted the 30th anniversary of their diplomatic normalization in 2002. They should be enjoying mature relations, but instead face serious trouble.

In addition to the disputes over historical perceptions, China has begun efforts to exploit natural gas resources near the border of the Japanese and Chinese exclusive economic zones in the East China Sea.

Last year, Japanese police arrested seven Chinese activists who landed on one of the disputed Senkaku islands. In Beijing last summer, after Japan’s team beat China’s in an Asian Cup soccer final, Chinese crowds turned violent, mobbing a bus carrying Japanese players and breaking the windows of a Japanese Embassy minister’s car.

A public opinion poll conducted by the Cabinet Office last year showed that the proportion of respondents feeling affinity toward China fell to 38 percent, down 10 points from the previous year. The ratio of those who claimed not to have any such sentiment jumped 10 points to 58 percent, indicating increasing anti-Chinese sentiment among the Japanese.

Meanwhile, a poll published by a Chinese government think tank last year showed a mere 6 percent of the respondents feeling affinity toward Japan, while those without such feelings came to 54 percent. Of the latter group, 62 percent said Japan had not reflected satisfactorily on its past military aggression.

Thus anti-Japanese sentiment is rooted in the issue of historical perceptions. Escalation of mutual hostility between Japan and China could further strain bilateral relations.

Meanwhile, Japan and China have agreed to terminate in fiscal 2008 Tokyo’s official development assistance to Beijing, which has amounted to 3 trillion yen in 25 years. Public criticism has been growing in Japan over the continuance of ODA to China, which is stepping up the modernization of its armed forces amid economic expansion. The abolition of ODA is likely to become a turning point in Sino-Japanese relations.

At a news conference last month, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao indicated willingness to improve relations with Japan, but the Chinese leadership has yet to change its position in the row over historical perceptions. Koizumi is hoping to hold frank talks with Chinese President Hu Jintao on the sidelines of the Asia-Africa summit in Indonesia this Saturday.

In a recent lecture, Deputy Foreign Minister Hitoshi Tanaka emphasized the need for a “readjustment” of Sino-Japanese relations, calling for “constructive engagement” with Beijing. He said the biggest challenge in Asia over the next 10 years will be persuading China to follow international rules. He said discussions of future Sino-Japanese relations must put all bilateral, Asian and global issues on the table.

Japan and China have a number of challenges they could tackle together, such as building the proposed East Asian Community, providing aid to Africa, and searching for ways to harmonize environmental protection with development. Since Japan and communist-ruled China have widely different value systems concerning democracy and freedom, there is difficulty in establishing a common ground for cooperation.

Political confrontation between Japan and China makes it all the more necessary for them to hold strategic dialogues.

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