Japanese PM looks to boost ties through China visit

2007-12-27 01:54:27 THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda waves as his wife Kiyoko bows from the steps of a special plane at Haneda airport, Japan, Thursday, Dec, 27, 2007. Fukuda was headed to China for a summit. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)

TOKYO -- Japan's prime minister was headed Thursday to China for a summit, facing conditions his predecessors haven't enjoyed for years: warming relations, a boost in economic ties and almost no rhetoric over their historical grievances.

Yasuo Fukuda's trip follows a series of conciliatory gestures on both sides. Signs of improving relations have been gathering pace, helping to push aside long-standing disputes over territory, wartime history and a regional rivalry.

He will have separate meetings Friday with China's Prime Minister Wen Jiaboa and President Hu Jintao in Beijing and also travel to Tianjin, Jinan and Qufu before returning to Japan on Sunday.

"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. "The question is, whether they can keep on talking, because the problems are going to take a long time to tackle."

In recent months, a Chinese warship dropped anchor off Tokyo, the first military visit by the communist nation to Japan since World War II. High-level economic talks in Beijing brought together the largest number of Cabinet officials from the two countries since they opened diplomatic ties 35 years ago. And the countries' prime ministers held friendly meetings at a regional summit in Singapore.

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. Japan's brutal invasion and occupation of much of China in the 1930s and 1940s left behind a legacy of bitterness that Beijing had fanned to cater to nationalist sentiments.

"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 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.

China is Japan's No. 1 trade partner; Japan is a top investor in China.

Ties remain shaky amid a slew of contemporary spats. As they scramble to secure energy for their economies, the two countries have competing claims to gas reserves in the East China Sea. Developing those fields is a top priority for Japan, 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. 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.

The bad feelings were broken only when former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, known as a hawk on foreign policy, visited China in October 2006. It was an important gesture because it was his first trip abroad as premier and was done instead of a traditional visit to Washington.

It wasn't so long ago that ties between China and Japan 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.

Still, the tone among officials from both sides these days is undeniably amicable.

Fukuda's schedule includes 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 hopes to boost his sagging popularity at home amid a pension records debacle and sluggish economy, while China is conscious of its image ahead of the Beijing Olympics next year.

"Fukuda is looking to earn popularity points, while China is working on its foreign policy image with the Olympics coming up," Sophia University's Takahashi said.