Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao arrived in Japan on Wednesday for three days of talks on the strategic relationship between the two most powerful nations in Asia. His talks with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe hinted that historical issues could hamper the slow thaw that is currently taking place. However, his invitation to Japan's Emperor may turn out to be the coup of the trip--and really warm relations.
After former PM Junichiro Koizumi's repeated visits to Yasukuni Shrine--enraging both China and South Korea--hopes are high that Abe would take a different path on Sino-Japanese relations.
Yasukuni, which is where Japanese war dead are enshrined--including class A war criminals Hideki Tojo et al--has strained relations in East Asia since the 1980s.
Abe worshipped at the shrine in September, prior to becoming PM, but has yet to indicate whether he will do so in an official capacity as prime minister.
Abe, moreover, earlier this spring voiced his skepticism about Japanese military involvement in directly managing wartime brothels. This not only stunned many in Japan--which apologized to the comfort women in 1993--but once again infuriated its neighbors.
Economic relations, however, between China and Japan are very good. China is now Japan's largest trading partner, larger even than the US.
Problems however remain.
First are territorial issues. The two countries disagree over an area in the East China Sea near Okinawa, under which there are gas field reserves. A compromise may be in the works.
Also, both sides are wary of military developments in recent years. Japan is moving slowing but surely towards becoming a "normal nation" and perhaps even revoking Article 9 of its constitution, which prevents it from launching a war of aggression. China for its part has been on a military spending spree in recent years, often using more than 10% of its budget on its military.
The wild card in all of this may be North Korea. China acts as its patron and is thought to have sway over Dear Leader Kim Jong Il, which may help in resolving the abductions issue in Japan--the issue that catapulted Abe to his current position.
In a speech to the Japanese Diet on Thursday, Wen was warm and diplomatic. Where he made the biggest impression, though, was in a meeting with the Emperor. In a brilliant bit of diplomacy, Premier Wen extended a warm invitation to the Heisei Emperor to next summer's Beijing Olympic Games.
Before returning to China, Wen visits Kyoto today.
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Friday, April 13, 2007