A Fresh Start for China and Japan?

Edmonton – Chinese President Hu Jintao will make a high-profile visit to Japan from May 6-10, making him the second Chinese head of state ever to travel there. The trip is being carefully managed by both countries, and is being watched closely around the world, with good reason: Sino-Japanese relations over the past decade have been turbulent, to say the least.

When Hu’s predecessor, Jiang Zemin, traveled to Japan ten years ago, bilateral relations were deteriorating: China was unhappy with the Japanese government’s refusal to extend the same apology offered to South Korea for past aggression; Japan was worried about a rising China and thus turning more confrontational. The Japanese media’s coverage of the visit was overwhelmingly negative, and it was remembered as a public-relations disaster.

Hu succeeded Jiang in 2002, almost as former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi was coming to power in Japan, and encouraged “New Thinking” in China’s Japan policy, which would entail moving away from historical grievances and promoting better ties. But, instead of accepting China’s olive branch, Koizumi implemented a more nationalistic agenda, including annual visits to the Yasukuni Shine, which is regarded as a symbol of Japanese militarism by Japan’s neighbors. His hard-line approach isolated Japan and angered China, leading to an outburst of anti-Japanese demonstrations in China in 2005.

But both Japan and China recognize that further tension will serve neither country’s long-term interests. Koizumi’s successors, Prime Ministers Shinzo Abe and Yasuo Fukuda, have sought to engage China over the past two years, with summits in Beijing and a successful visit by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao to Japan last year.