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Regional integration: a possible inner drive for China, Japan to keep a lid on bilateral tensions?


by Xu Song, China Features

Twenty-seven-year-old Mishima Otani felt uneasy going out when for some reason he had to talk to Chinese people.

"People are still polite to me, but I have a different feeling from what I felt when I first came to China six years ago. There is always something I can tell behind the politeness," said Otani.

As an overseas student who well knows China and the Chinese people, Otani said he is quite concerned about the current bilateral relations which have stuck in a difficult period of time -- mostly at the political level now, but soon might impact on other fields including economic, cultural and educational exchanges.

"It's not like disagreement or argument between friends. Normal communication is weak, and only protest and indifference prevail," Otani said.

The relationship between China and Japan has been chilled in recent years due to Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's repeated pilgrimage to the Yasukuni Shrine, which honors 2.5 million Japanese war dead including a dozen convicted World War II A-class war criminals. Like other Asian countries which suffered Japanese invasion during the World War II, China believes Koizumi's act not only hurts the feeling of the people in the victimized countries, but also indicates that Japan didn't reflect enough on its historical mistakes.

Leaders of the two neighboring countries have halted exchanges of visit for over four years, ever since Koizumi began paying homage to the controversial war shrine shortly after he took office in 2001.

Last spring, more than 10,000 Chinese joined a rally in Beijing protesting Japan's distortion of its wartime past and Tokyo's bid for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

The gathering participants called out slogans as "boycott Japanese-made products," "safeguard the Diaoyu Islands (where China and Japan have a territorial dispute)," and "smash Japan's daydream of seeking a permanent seat on the UN Security Council" on their way to the eastern part of Beijing where the Japanese Embassy is located.

However, Chinese experts and analysts still believe that the increasing regional integration and economic globalization will help the two big Asian neighbors settle, or at least shelve, their current disputes and promote cooperation.

"If the focus could be shifted to the entire Asia-Pacific region as a whole, you will understand that neither of the two sides (China and Japan) can afford to lacerate ties and put huge economic and security common interests at stake", said Liu Jiangyong, an international studies expert with the Beijing-based Tsinghua University.

The Japanese and the Chinese economies are the two largest in Asia, and the shape of their relations has strong repercussions on the prosperity and stability of the region as a whole.

As the two countries have strong economic bonds, Japan must work with China to resolve disputes so that the benefits of economic globalization can be fully enjoyed and both countries become more prosperous, Liu said.

In terms of the regional economy, cooperation between Japan and China, both major economies in Asia, will promote stability and prosperity in the region. In this sense, cooperation between Japan and China in APEC, the ASEAN-plus-three forum and the ASEAN Regional Forum will be good for the stability and prosperity in East Asia. Over the long run, Japan and China could perhaps explore the possibility of setting up an East Asia Free Trade Area and broaden the sphere of economic cooperation in the region.

"China now has a chance that it never had before to further promote its foreign policy of peace, development and prosperity with its neighboring countries, which is also an opportunity rather a challenge for Japan to play a bigger role in the regional affairs", Liu noted.

In last April alone, top Chinese leaders -- President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao -- respectively visited Brunei, Indonesia, the Philippines, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and India to extend friendship, expand cooperation and enhance unity with these neighbors.

China has also successfully established several frameworks with its neighboring countries based on common interests in economics, political cooperation and regional security.

At the north, China deepens its security and economic cooperation based on enhanced mutual trust with Central Asian nations, and the four-year-old Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), an intergovernmental international organization jointly founded by China, Russia, Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, has witnessed more vigorous momentum of cooperation in maintaining regional security and fighting terrorism, separatism and extremism.

With the successful launch of an SCO summit in Shanghai this June, the role of the SCO framework has been further strengthened, with Mongolia, Pakistan, Iran and India accepted as observers of the organization.

At the south, China also maintained good relationship with the 10-member ASEAN under the "ASEAN +1" mechanism. ASEAN has become China's fourth largest trading partner and as Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Wu Dawei described, a strategic partnership oriented toward peace and prosperity has been forged between China and ASEAN.

"It should be recognized that China and its neighbors have all experienced a process of measuring respective strategic weight on each other, and Japan in particular, also has started a process of revaluating China," said Ruan Zongze, deputy director of China Institute of International Studies.

"As the economic interdependency grows remarkably between the two nations especially in the new century, China and Japan are much more closely related to the future prosperity of their own", Ruan said.

Recent polls showed that the number of Japanese people who oppose the controversial visits to the war-linked Yasukuni Shrine by a Japanese prime minister had risen to over 50 percent.

 A weekend survey conducted by the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper showed that as compared with a survey in January, opponents to such visits grew 7 percentage points to 54 percent, while supporters dropped 14 percentage points to 33 percent.

The Japanese government also made a formal decision in July to end its freeze on the about 74 billion yen (about 673 million U.S. dollars) aid loans to China for fiscal 2005 through March.

A top decision-making panel on foreign aid strategy comprising Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, Foreign Minister Taro Aso and other cabinet ministers decided to do so after comprehensively considering Japan's national interests, including the significance of Japan-China relations and its current state.

"You can feel the delicate climate changes inside the Japan government and society on the China-Japan relations", Ruan said, adding that bilateral tension might be defused if both governments agreed to seek ways to amend ties.

"A solution to the issues that disturb the China-Japan relations must almost certainly await a new Japanese prime minister in 2006. However, the current Sino-Japan relations are like a stream coming up against a rock, the stream rolls ahead all the same in circumvention of the rock", the expert noted.

On the Chinese side, President Hu Jintao has offered talks with Japanese leaders on the condition that they make a clear-cut decision to stop visiting the Yasukuni Shrine.

"As long as the Japanese leaders make a clear-cut decision to stop visiting the Yasukuni Shrine honoring WWII war criminals, I would like to meet or have dialogue with them on how to improve Sino-Japanese relations", Hu said in his meeting with the heads of seven Japan-China friendship organizations at the end of this March.

The Chinese president calls for dealing with the Sino-Japanese ties with "an attitude responsible for the history, the people and the future".

"Being responsible for the history means that the historical facts should be respected, and historical lessons should be learned … being responsible for the people means that the development of China-Japan relations should always bring about concrete benefits for the two peoples…and being responsible for the future means that the two sides should persist in peaceful co-existence and friendship for the generations to come, and jointly create a bright future for the China-Japan good-neighborly friendship and mutually-beneficial cooperation", Hu said.


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