Japan and China: It Feels Like a Thaw
Frank Ching (Commentator based in Hong Kong)
In a visit rich in symbolism, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe flew to Beijing on his first overseas trip since taking office last month. The visit at the weekend was the first to China by a Japanese leader in five years, and the first time that a Japanese prime minister has chosen Beijing rather than Washington for his first trip abroad after assuming office.
President Hu Jintao described the visit as a "new start" and a "turning point" for Sino-Japanese relations - which have been deteriorating for the past five years while Junichiro Koizumi was prime minister. The firmness of the new Sino-Japanese relationship is likely to face its first test in North Korea's explosion of a nuclear device. That came just after Mr Abe's departure from Beijing, for Seoul, where he met President Roh Moo-hyun.
Beijing reacted to news of the nuclear test with uncharacteristic sternness, saying it had been "outrageously conducted" and was "in defiance of unanimous opposition from the international community".
However, it remains to be seen whether China will agree with Japan and the United States on imposing severe economic sanctions against North Korea.
It's ironic that it is the ultra-nationalist Mr Abe who is trying to repair the relationship with China - badly damaged because of differences over history. He is the grandson of Nobusuke Kishi, a wartime cabinet member who was imprisoned as a Class-A war criminal but never tried.
He is known in Japan as a hardliner who refuses to recognise the verdicts of the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal. For that very reason, some have speculated that Mr Abe was in the ideal position to seek a Richard Nixon-style rapprochement with China.
Mr Abe seems more of a pragmatist than Mr Koizumi, willing to do what is necessary for Japan's national self-interest. As Mr Abe well knows, Japan's interest today lies in having a good relationship with China - its top trading partner - whose importance is only going to rise in the coming years.
Chinese and South Korean leaders refused to meet Mr Koizumi because of his repeated visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, where 14 Class-A war criminals are honoured along with other Japanese war dead. Mr Abe, who has visited Yasukuni many times, has refused to say whether he will visit it as leader.
Mr Hu and Mr Roh agreed to meet Mr Abe even though Japan gave no undertaking that he would stay away from the shrine. There is apparently a tacit understanding that he won't visit it again any time soon, at least.
Mr Abe said in Beijing that he would not discuss whether he would visit Yasukuni. This seemed to suggest that, if he went to the shrine, it would be done surreptitiously. But it would be virtually impossible to keep that secret. So, most likely he won't visit the shrine - while making no promises not to do so. Such a promise would make him vulnerable to charges of kowtowing to China, and cost him support in right-wing circles.
It was disclosed this year that the late emperor Hirohito had voiced his anger at the 1978 enshrinement of the Class-A war criminals at Yasukuni. That is likely to have made Mr Abe's decision somewhat easier.
The fact that he was invited to Beijing and held meetings with the top three Chinese leaders - Mr Hu, Premier Wen Jiabao and National People's Congress Standing Committee chairman Wu Bangguo - is a major achievement in itself.
Because the Beijing talks went well, summit meetings are likely to be fairly frequent from now on. But China's leaders may not take up Mr Abe's invitation to visit Tokyo for some time, while they assess his performance.
Japan and China have problems to tackle other than history. These include the ownership of the Diaoyu (Senkaku) Islands and the exploitation of gas fields in the East China Sea, where the two countries have overlapping claims.
Mr Abe's visit to Beijing was the first step. Things went remarkably well, and the two countries are even talking about a strategic relationship. But it's best to take things one step at a time.
(Originally appeared in the October 11, 2006 issue of South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, reproduced here with permission.)