Looking Beyond Koizumi
Frank Ching (Commentator based in Hong Kong)
The Japanese prime minister's visit to the Yasukuni Shrine last week had been expected - but it still drew vigorous condemnation from both China and South Korea.
Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing declared that the visit "challenges international justice and tramples on human conscience".
Yet, Beijing was clearly looking beyond the tenure of Junichiro Koizumi to see whether the bilateral relationship could be repaired after he is replaced - most probably by Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe - next month.
While making sure that Japan understood the strength of Chinese emotions, Beijing took pains to ensure that Sino-Japanese relations would not be damaged by a display of public anger.
The official Chinese media was restrained in its coverage of the Koizumi visit to the shrine, a symbol of Japan's past militarism, where 2.5 million war dead are enshrined, including 14 Class-A war criminals from the second world war.
Only a small group was allowed to protest outside the Japanese embassy in Beijing, and mainland newspapers did not carry any photographs of the demonstration.
Even while the foreign minister castigated the prime ministerial visit, he declared that China attached "great importance" to improving Sino-Japanese relations.
Similarly, State Councillor Tang Jiaxuan - in a meeting with Takako Doi of Japan's opposition Social Democratic Party - promised that China would continue to work to improve the bilateral relationship.
Mr Abe is known as a hardliner and is reported to have secretly visited the Yasukuni war shrine in April.
However, in recent weeks he has been silent on what his policy would be as prime minister.
At a forum on Sino-Japanese relations this month, Mr Abe delivered a keynote address calling for a strong relationship that would serve the common interests of both countries.
However, he was silent on whether he would pay homage at the controversial shrine if he is elected leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, thus becoming prime minister.
Mr Abe stressed the poor state of the bilateral relationship, saying that while 78 per cent of Japanese had positive attitudes towards China in 1980, the figure had dropped to only 32 per cent last year.
In China, only 15 per cent of the population said they had positive feelings towards Japan.
Opinions on the shrine have become a major issue of public debate in Japan, with an increasing number of people opposed to visits by the country's leaders.
This shift became especially noticeable after it was publicly revealed recently that emperor Hirohito decided not to visit the memorial after the enshrinement of the Class-A war criminals there in 1978.
On Sunday, Toranosuke Katayama, secretary-general of the ruling party's upper-house caucus, said that the country should discuss the Yasukuni Shrine "and its legal status, including the possibility of removing Class-A war criminals".
Another idea, widely discussed, is to build a secular, national facility to commemorate the war dead.
While Japanese increasingly oppose shrine visits by their prime minister, the issue has become one of face - especially since Beijing has called publicly for a halt to such visits.
The situation has been compared to admiral Lord Nelson's remarks about how England should deal with Napoleon.
Picking up a poker, Nelson used to say: "It matters not at all in what way I lay down this poker.
"But if Bonaparte should say it must be placed in this direction, we must instantly insist upon its being laid differently."
Yasukuni is an emotional issue, but Japan must deal with it rationally and wisely.
Whatever decision Tokyo makes will not be as trivial as how to place a poker.
It will have a grave impact on the relationship between the two major powers of East Asia and will affect the global alignment of powers.
(Originally appeared in the August 23, 2006 issue of South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, reproduced here with permission.)