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Thursday, Sept. 4, 2003

'History' bedevils China-Japan relations

HONG KONG -- The visit to China this week by Japan's defense minister, Shigeru Ishiba, reflects an improved relationship between the two countries as well as the fact that little is being done to address underlying problems.

On the surface, relations between the two countries are better than ever. Japan has long been China's most important trading partner, and now China has replaced the United States as the biggest source of Japanese imports. Beginning this month, China will waive visa requirements for Japanese tourists and business people for 15 days.

However, the relationship is beset by problems. Ishiba's predecessor, Gen Nakatani, had been scheduled to visit Beijing in April last year, but that trip was canceled after Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi angered China by paying yet another visit to Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japanese war dead, including Class A war criminals.

Significantly, even though this year marks the 25th anniversary of a peace and friendship treaty between the two countries, there has been no exchange of visits by top leaders. Similarly, last year, which marked the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations, also went by without such visits. Koizumi's planned trip to Beijing was aborted after he visited the controversial shrine.

A summit meeting of sorts was arranged a few months ago, when both Koizumi and Chinese President Hu Jintao were in St. Petersburg. At the time, Koizumi emphasized the need for the two countries to enhance political exchanges, including at the top leadership level. Hu was noncommittal, although he diplomatically promised to work with Japan toward that goal. The goal was not reached. What transpired were exchanges at the ministerial level, including visits by the two countries' foreign ministers.

The Aug. 12 anniversary was marred by an accident a week before in which several dozen Chinese in Heilongjiang Province were injured -- one fatally -- by poisonous chemicals left behind by the Japanese Imperial Army. Forty-three people were hospitalized after one of five drums of mustard gas found on a construction site was accidentally opened. Japan used chemical weapons in China during World War II and acknowledged abandoning 700,000 items in China at the end of the war. In the 58 years since then, more than 2,000 Chinese have fallen victim to these weapons.

Up to now, Japan has not accepted legal liability in such incidents. This time the Japanese government acknowledged responsibility and pronounced the accident "extremely regrettable," but it remains unclear whether Japan will compensate the victims. If Japan does agree to provide compensation, it would mark a step forward toward resolving historical issues.

While Japan maintains that China waived payment of war reparations when the two countries established relations in 1972, China insists that individual victims have the right to ask Japan for compensation. From the Chinese standpoint the most important issues are historical ones. Thus the Chinese Foreign Ministry's Web site, in discussing "some sensitive issues" between the two countries, put the "issue of history" first, ahead of even the Taiwan issue.

Japan, however, focuses on economic exchanges. Thus, Koizumi, in his meeting with Hu, emphasized Japan's interest in taking part in the construction of a high-speed train link between Beijing and Shanghai. "Japanese industrial circles are strongly interested in this project," Koizumi said. Again, however, Hu was noncommittal, saying that China had not decided whether to introduce a maglev or a rail system.

Historical issues look set to continue to beset the relationship. Last year, a Japanese government panel recommended the construction of an alternative secular memorial as one way to avoid disputes over visits by Japanese leaders to Yasukuni Shrine. However, the Japanese government has just decided not to earmark funds in fiscal 2004 for construction of such a facility.

Other issues in the relationship include China's suspicion of Japanese intentions with its military upgrades. Part of the purpose of Ishiba's visit is to alleviate Chinese concerns over Japanese efforts to increase its security role in the region and the world. China is also unhappy with Japan's interest in setting up a missile defense system in collaboration with the U.S. The Chinese fear that such a system may be extended to provide Taiwan with an antimissile umbrella.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator.

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