Japan and China: Dialogue of the Deaf
Frank Ching (Commentator based in Hong Kong)
The good thing about Sino-Japanese relations is that the two sides keep talking to each other. The bad thing is that they seem to be unable to make progress on any of the main issues that divide them, including history, territorial differences and natural resources in the East China Sea. Relations today are the worst since 1972, when the two countries established diplomatic ties.
A number of Japanese politicians visited China last week in an attempt to improve relations. The most important visitor was Toshihiro Nikai, minister of economy, trade and industry. He met Premier Wen Jiabao, State Councillor Tang Jiaxuan, and Commerce Minister Bo Xilai.
Also in Beijing was a delegation from Japan's ruling coalition, the Liberal Democratic and Komei parties, to hold discussions with the Chinese Communist Party.
However, little progress was made. According to the Chinese Foreign Ministry, "views have been exchanged" with Mr Nikai, and some agreements were reached on promoting economic and trade relations. But there was little headway on major issues, though another round of talks on the East China Sea will be held in the first half of this month.
One positive development is an apparent willingness by Washington to try to help resolve Sino-Japanese differences.
Last November, while in South Korea for a regional summit, US President George W. Bush urged both Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and President Hu Jintao to try to resolve disagreements over history.
Washington had previously taken the position that differences over history should be ironed out by Japan and China without American involvement. But now the United States, which wields great influence in Tokyo, apparently fears Japan will become increasingly isolated in Asia.
Besides, Japan's position on history inevitably involves the US. For one thing, Yasukuni Shrine - which Mr Koizumi visits regularly - denies the justness of the tribunal that sentenced 14 Class A war criminals to death after the second world war. The shrine's website calls them "martyrs" who were "cruelly and unjustly tried as war criminals by a sham-like tribunal of the allied forces".
In addition, Mr Koizumi justifies his visits to the shrine by saying that Japan owes its peace and prosperity today to the sacrifices its soldiers made in the second world war. That suggests that Japan's invasion of China, its occupation of much of Southeast Asia and its attack on Pearl Harbour were all justified. But, so far, the US has chosen to remain silent on the issue.
China seems to have given up hope of patching things up with Mr Koizumi, who is scheduled to step down in September. However, leading contenders to succeed him, including Foreign Minister Taro Aso, appear to share Mr Koizumi's views.
Mr Aso has been a major critic of China. For months, he has accused Beijing of having brought about the suicide last May of an official in the Japanese consulate in Shanghai. Beijing has denied the accusation.
On February 18, Mr Aso expanded on the incident, saying: "They approached him, offering to arrange a sexy woman for him. Then he was blackmailed to give away secret codes for classified information. It is clear from a suicide note he left."
However, he backed away from his claim two days later, saying that his account had been hypothetical.
If Mr Aso does not change his mind again, this issue may be considered resolved. Other issues, unfortunately, are much more intransigent.
But the fact that both countries are willing to talk shows that there is a common desire to improve relations. And if the US weighs in as well, then there is hope that the stalemate may be broken.
(Originally appeared in the March 1, 2006 issue of South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, reproduced here with permission.)