The Sichuan earthquake disaster has highlighted many changes in China, such as its willingness to accept outside aid in contrast to the 1976 Tangshan earthquake, when Beijing insisted on self-reliance and refused all offers of assistance.
In terms of foreign relations, it also had one very significant effect: an improvement of ties between China and Japan. Japan, which has a history of earthquakes, was the first foreign country whose offer to send a rescue team to the devastated region was accepted by China.
Subsequently, Japanese medical personnel were dispatched to Sichuan to provide assistance to survivors.
But it was Beijing’s suggestion — subsequently withdrawn — that Japanese military aircraft could be used to ferry tents, blankets and medical supplies that showed the extent to which Chinese officials were willing to go. In the end, the idea was scotched apparently as a result of popular opposition.
What this shows is that the Chinese public continues to dwell on problems of history and has not progressed as fast as the government in terms of rapprochement with Japan. The same can be said of the Japanese public and government.
The visit by President Hu Jintao to Japan last month went off extraordinarily well, following a very positive visit to Beijing in December by Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, and a visit to Tokyo by Premier Wen Jiabao last year, which reciprocated the 2006 visit by then Premier Shinzo Abe.
The Wen and Hu visits showed the willingness of the Chinese government to adopt a forward-looking view and not to harp on history. Significantly, both men’s addresses in Japan were televised and shown live in China, which should have the effect of telling the Chinese people of a change in their government’s position.
The joint statement issued at the time of the presidential visit showed that the two countries had made a conceptual breakthrough in saying that they “recognized that the two countries’ sole option is to cooperate.” Since geography forces them to be neighbors, they really have no other choice.
But it takes time for emotions to catch up with rationality. Years of hostile sentiments cannot be wiped out after one or two summit meetings, and more work remains to be done.
For example, although the new accord declared that Beijing and Tokyo had set the “noble goal” of “friendship for generations,” this sentiment was not reflected in the public mood in either country.
This was made obvious by a survey conducted by the Mainichi newspaper, which showed that 51 percent of the public wanted Japan to take a tougher line toward China, almost twice the number that wanted Tokyo to assume a friendlier stance. The two countries have decided that together they can do much more than they can do separately. Fukuda said as much on May 22 when he addressed a conference on the future of Asia. Japan and China, he said, had “reconfirmed our common intentions to strengthen the mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests,” adding “I think it is fair to say that Japan-China bilateral relations have adopted a global viewpoint for the first time.”
But before the two countries can act jointly on their global viewpoint, they need to work to get their people to share this vision. In particular, they need to allow the sentiments of their people to gradually change and adapt to new circumstances.
For example, many Chinese were touched by a photograph of members of a Japanese rescue team bowing in silent prayer to a body they had retrieved from the rubble. Such incidents will have the effect of changing public opinion, but it takes time.
The most effective way of bringing about a change in public opinion is for the two governments to resolve their differences. At present, there are two outstanding issues.
One of them involves pesticide-contaminated frozen dumplings imported from China. Police officers from China and Japan are both investigating, but they seem to be working at cross purposes rather than jointly seeking a resolution.
The other issue, far more important, is the question of oil and gas resources in the East China Sea. Both countries have agreed in principle of joint development, but so far a specific agreement has been elusive.
If the two countries want to work together as strategic partners, they need the support of their respective publics. And to get that support, the two governments must first show that they are able to overcome existing problems. The first order of business should be an agreement on the East China Sea.
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator.