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Japanese PM looks to boost ties through China visit

Japanese PM looks to boost ties through China visit

When Japan's prime minister heads to China for a summit Thursday, he'll face conditions his predecessors haven't enjoyed for years: warming ties, a boost in economic relations and a near disappearance of rhetoric over historical grievances.
Yasuo Fukuda's two-day stay follows a series of gestures on both sides _ starting with a fence-mending visit by Fukuda's predecessor last year _ marking an improvement in ties marred by disputes over territory, wartime history and a regional rivalry.
Signs of good relations have been gathering pace.
Last month, a Chinese warship dropped anchor off Tokyo in the communist nation's first military visit to Japan since the war, after amiable meetings between the countries' prime ministers at a regional summit in Singapore.
The neighbors followed up with high-level economic talks in Beijing that brought together the largest number of Cabinet officials from the two countries since they opened diplomatic ties 35 years ago.
The talks were hailed as a success by both sides for a series of broad agreements on trade and investment, reflecting the surging economic ties between China, Japan's No. 1 trade partner, and Japan, a top investor in China.
In a sign of a further thaw in relations, Beijing was notably muted in marking the 70th anniversary of Japan's wartime massacre of civilians in the Chinese city of Nanjing earlier this month.
"China attaches great importance to the Prime Minister Fukuda's visit, and is ready to make joint efforts with Japan to enhance political mutual trust, expand common interests, and deepen practical cooperation," Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang told reporters Tuesday.
Behind the feel-good atmospherics, however, lies the reality that the two Asian giants have plenty of hard work ahead to sort out their troubles, which include Japan's distrust of Chinese military growth and potential economic friction.
A top priority for Japan is attacking a dispute over the right to develop gas fields in disputed areas of the East China Sea as the two countries scramble to secure energy for their economies.
"Both sides want better ties, but they can't change the fact their relations are fraught with problems," said Hisashi Takahashi, international relations professor at Sophia University in Tokyo.
"It's an improvement that the countries' leaders are talking to each other. The question is, whether they can keep on talking, because the problems are going to take a long time to tackle."
And it wasn't so long ago that ties between the two countries were driven to a postwar low by the gas dispute and Japanese leaders' visits to a Tokyo war shrine, which many Chinese saw as inflammatory.
Japan's brutal invasion and occupation of much of China in the 1930s and '40s have left behind a legacy of bitterness that Beijing had previously fanned to cater to nationalist sentiments.
The bad feelings were only broken when former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, known as a hawk on foreign policy, made the gesture of visiting China in October 2006 as his first trip abroad as premier, instead of the traditional visit to Washington.
Ties remain shaky amid a slew of contemporary spats. The two countries have competing claims to gas reserves in the East China Sea, and talks have repeatedly been bogged down _ with no breakthrough expected soon.
Distrust between Beijing and Tokyo also runs deep on military issues, with Japanese officials having repeatedly expressed concerns about China's surging military spending in recent years.
Even the recent economic talks threatened to turn ugly after Japan accused China of deleting a phrase from a joint statement calling for Beijing to further relax controls on its currency.
Still, the tone among officials from both sides these days is undeniably amicable.
On Fukuda's schedule is a banquet hosted by President Hu Jintao and a speech at the prestigious Beijing University, which Japanese media reports say will be broadcast live on TV _ both rare arrangements for a leader from Tokyo.
Fukuda will also pay homage at the birthplace of the ancient Chinese philosopher, Confucius, in the northeastern city of Qufu _ reciprocating a visit by Premier Wen Jiabao earlier this year to the ancient Japanese capital of Kyoto.
Domestic politics are also playing a role in the warm feelings. Fukuda, for instance, could use some foreign policy accomplishments to combat falling popularity at home amid a pension records debacle and sluggish economy.
China, on the other hand, is "trying to play nice" ahead of the Beijing Olympics next year, Sophia University's Takahashi said.
"Fukuda is looking to earn popularity points, while China is working on its foreign policy image with the Olympics coming up," Takahashi said.
"In a good way, the countries' interests have come together. We'll see if that continues."


Updated : 2021-05-17 22:28 GMT+08:00