01/18/2007, 00.00
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Beijing and Tokyo find they are just a bit less enemies

by Pino Cazzaniga
Economic relations have always been excellent, but Abe’s new diplomatic offensive is bridging the gap between the two giants of East Asia. State visits by the heads of their respective governments have been announced, but so has a joint approach to review the past. In the meantime more and more of their citizens are interested in the language and traditions of the “other”.

Tokyo (AsiaNews) – Sino-Japanese reconciliation is moving along, a few steps at a time. As Wen Jiabao and Shinzo Abe plan to visit each other’s capital, the two East Asian giants the political chasm declines. Similarly, the social distance is narrowing. As for the economy, relations have always been excellent.

Japan’s new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, and his new diplomatic approach deserve credit for this new rapprochement. This is a far cry from the recent past. Just a few months ago political relations were stormy despite economic good ties.

Former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s frequent visits to the Yasukuni shrine and his different perception of Sino-Japanese relations were the main reasons for the frosty relationship.

But last Sunday, when Mr Abe met his Chinese counterpart, Premier Wen Jiabao, on Cebu Island (Philippines) for the East Asia summit, talks were cordial and positive.

This is no accident. Abe’s decision to mend fences with China paid off in both political and psychological terms.

In October, only two weeks after he took office he flew to Seoul and Beijing for quick visits, breaking with tradition that saw every new Japanese prime minister make his first foreign visit to Washington. And it was not merely courtesy call, but a diplomatically thought-out charm offensive. In the Chinese capital Abe met his counterpart, Wen, as well as President Hu Jintao.

For Kazuo Ogoura, a political science professor at Aoyama Gakuin University, that visit “was important for several reasons. In the short term, it represented a significant contribution to easing tensions between Tokyo and Beijing. From a long-term perspective, it helped lay the foundations for a stronger bilateral relationship.

This is best evinced in one historic paragraph in the joint statement the two leaders released, which stated that “since the end of World War II, Japan has followed the path of a peaceful, democratic country, thereby contributing to the maintenance of global peace and a friendly relationship with China”. The statement further notes that China shared this perception.

No mention was made of the Yasukuni shrine to avoid embarrassing the Japanese premier, who for his part showed enough diplomatic good sense to avoid that Shinto temple during New Year celebrations and instead visited the Meiji emperor’s shrine.

As for different perceptions about the past, the two leaders agreed to separate that issue from any current political agenda. The two leaders agreed to set up a 20-member joint commission. Historians and researchers from both sides will look at the past and release their findings by the end of 2008.

Before the commission met for the first time in December, Abe said “having history discussed by academics from both countries is significant and positive for both nations.”

The atmosphere of reconciliation that prevailed in Beijing continued in Cebu. In the Philippines Premier Wen told Abe that China would use all its diplomatic influence with Pyongyang to help solve the problem of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea, something no Chinese government ever suggested before.

Mr Wen also accepted an invitation to visit Japan in April and invited Abe to come again to China. For analysts, the premier’s visit to Tokyo foreshadows one by Chinese President Hu.

Not since 2002 have state visits of such high-ranking officials taken place.

The thaw in diplomatic and political relations is also having a spill-over effect elsewhere. China Central Television ran a series of historical documentaries titled the “Rise of Big Powers”. In autumn one episode dedicated to Japan was presented in positive terms: “About 150 years ago, Japan, the island-nation, faced a fatal crisis under threat by Western colonialists. Japan used the crisis as an opportunity to get rid of its old [way of life] and remake itself. This way it built Asia’s first modern nation”.

The programme was seen by a large public, and marked a new willingness on China’s part to see Japan as it is, something unthinkable just a few years ago when its cities teemed with anti-Japanese protesters.

How things have changed! Now the number of young Chinese signing up for Japanese classes is up and up. In December the number of candidates taking proficiency tests hit and passed the 200,000 mark. The language of no other nation can claim that.

Young Japanese are also showing interest in knowing people of their own age from China. Discussions between students via teleconferencing between Tokyo’s Waseda and Keio universities and Beijing and Tsinghua universities proved a success. Topics, in both Japanese and Chinese, covered current issues.

Kazuko Sunaoka, the Waseda University Chinese-language scholar who organised the exchange, put it this way: “Students from both countries can discover that they have much in common.”

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See also
Wen Jiabao’s Tokyo visit, from enmity to dialogue
Wen Jiabao in Japan, a decisive step
Chinese warship on friendly visit to Japan
Tokyo and Beijing start talking again
Tokyo ends controversy over “comfort–women”


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“L’Asia: ecco il nostro comune compito per il terzo millennio!” - Giovanni Paolo II, da “Alzatevi, andiamo”