It appears that Japan-China relations, severely strained by recent anti-Japanese demonstrations in Chinese cities, are beginning to move toward rapprochement. Credit goes to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Chinese President Hu Jintao, who agreed on the urgent need to improve bilateral ties at a meeting in Jakarta on Saturday.

Their meeting came at a time when radical anti-Japanese protests were clouding the prospects for bilateral economic relations. At risk was not only tourism, with many Japanese canceling or postponing trips to China, but also trade and investment between the two countries.

The Koizumi-Hu talks, held on the sidelines of the second Asia-Africa summit, bring to mind a groundbreaking encounter that took place 50 years ago, in April 1955, between then State Minister Tatsunosuke Takasaki and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai during the first Asia-Africa summit in Bandung, Indonesia. There, Zhou invited Takasaki to visit China — a visit that would lead to the opening of semigovernmental trade between the two nations and, eventually, to the normalization of relations in 1972.

Takasaki and Zhou met under the shadow of the Cold War, as Japan and mainland China were still in a technical state of war. Three years earlier, in 1952, Japan established diplomatic relations with Taiwan, formally known as the Republic of China. The two men, however, believed that the interests of both Japan and China would one day dictate the development of a mutually dependent bilateral relationship.

Fifty years on, Japan-China relations are, sadly, far from stable. During the past month, large numbers of Chinese took to the streets in Beijing and other cities, shouting “Down with Japanese products” and “Patriotism is not guilty.” Some of them turned violent, causing damage to Japanese diplomatic missions and commercial facilities. These events have highlighted the depth and breadth of anti-Japanese feelings in China. At the same time, the absence of any official Chinese apology for the damage has spawned anti-Chinese feelings in Japan.

Chinese protests against Japan’s wartime abuses and its campaign for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council have fallen on many deaf ears here. Going to an extreme, some nationalist academics and intellectuals have called for the severance of diplomatic relations.

Disputes over sovereignty and energy have also strained bilateral relations. Both nations claim control over the Senkaku (Diaoyu in Chinese) Islands in the East China Sea. They are also at odds over natural-gas development in the region. Beyond that, the two Asian powers increasingly see each other as military rivals. What seems most worrying is that, without remedial action on both sides, a cycle of mutual animosity might escalate.

The demonstrations have tested the Hu administration. Following the rampage in Beijing, the Communist Party leadership moved to bring the situation under control, but could not, or would not, prevent vandalism in Shanghai. It appeared as though the party was losing, or loosening, its iron grip.

Beijing’s refusal to apologize seemed to reflect a sense of vulnerability, a sense that the government and party might also become the target of “patriotic” protests unless they dealt “properly” with the anti-Japanese campaign. That may be why the Chinese Foreign Ministry circulated an erroneous report that Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura had issued an apology for Japan’s wartime aggression.

China, in a successful effort to weather the crisis of communism brought on by the end of the Cold War, has stepped up market-oriented economic reform while drumming up nationalism. The demonstrations, however, have revealed that nationalism is a double-edged sword: It can either promote national unity or destroy internal stability.

Patriotism, if pushed too far, may hurt diplomatic relations. But if Beijing makes light of popular sentiment, the Chinese people may brand it “weak-kneed” in its conduct of diplomacy. The test for the Chinese leadership is to balance domestic politics and diplomacy. The new policy of cracking down on unauthorized demonstrations, issued before Mr. Hu’s meeting with Mr. Koizumi, would seem to suggest that Beijing is confident it can stabilize the situation.

The silver lining behind cloudy Japan-China relations is the steady progress of economic integration, with bilateral trade now exceeding that between Japan and the United States. Takasaki and Zhou probably never expected such an outcome, but their pledge of mutual cooperation — the “Bandung spirit” of peaceful coexistence — remains as valid as it was 50 years ago.

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