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Saturday, Dec. 25, 2004

Strained Japan-China ties bode ill for region's future

HONG KONG -- Beijing's relations with Tokyo, already strained by the intrusion of a Chinese nuclear submarine into Japanese territorial waters last month, have been worsened by Japan's release on Dec. 10 of a new National Defense Program Outline that for the first time names China as a potential threat.

"China, which has significant influence on the region's security, is pushing forward its nuclear and missile capabilities and modernization of its navy and air force," the document said. "It is also trying to expand its scope of naval activities and attention must be paid to these developments."

While Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura denied that Japan viewed China as a threat, saying that the document only "mentioned the need to pay attention to security issues regarding China," the significance of the document, which sets out Japan's defense policies for the coming decade, is quite obvious. Aside from China, North Korea was the only other country singled out for special attention.

To make matters worse, Tokyo issued a visitor's visa to former President Lee Teng-hui of Taiwan to enable him and his family to visit Japan at the end of 2004 and the beginning of 2005 "purely for tourism purposes." This would be Lee's first visit since 2001, when he sought medical attention in Japan.

Chinese officials reacted angrily to the news. Calling Lee "the top representative of Taiwan independence," a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said the issuance of a visa to him by Japan was "making a provocation at the great cause of China's peaceful reunification."

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi denied that the visa approval was designed to irritate Beijing. Yet the extent to which Sino-Japanese relations have deteriorated in recent weeks is remarkable, considering that Koizumi met separately with Chinese President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao in November.

The Koizumi-Hu meeting took place Nov. 21 in Chile on the margins of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders' forum. That did not go well, as Hu exhorted the Japanese leader not to pay homage at Yasukuni Shrine, Japan's memorial for its war dead, which include executed war criminals.

The Japanese leader was noncommittal, but nine days later, when he met Wen in Laos -- where both were attending a summit meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations -- his Chinese counterpart again pressed him on the Yasukuni issue, calling it the "core problem" in the bilateral relationship.

Koizumi again refused to rule out future visits to the shrine. And when the Japanese leader invited Wen to visit Japan, the Chinese pointedly rebuffed him by saying he "hopes to visit Japan in a favorable condition and environment."

Chinese leaders have declined to visit Japan since Koizumi became prime minister because the Japanese leader visits the shrine every year.

While political relations are in the deep freeze, economic ties continue to develop, with trade between the two countries expected to reach $150 billion this year. Japan is China's most important trading partner while Japan's trade with China exceeds that of its trade with any other country except the United States.

However, sooner or later the political tensions are bound to affect the economic relationship. Nationalism is on the rise in both countries. Japan has asked China to support its bid for a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council, support that Beijing has pointedly withheld.

In addition the two countries are rivals for Russian oil and gas. They also have overlapping claims to areas in the East China Sea with rich deposits of natural gas.

The deterioration of the relationship will be difficult to reverse. Recent opinion surveys show that Chinese and Japanese increasingly dislike one another. A new survey conducted by the Japanese government shows that people feel less friendly toward China than at any point in nearly 30 years. The percentage of respondents who said they felt friendly toward China fell from 47.9 percent a year ago to 37.6 percent, the lowest level since the surveys began in 1975. At the same time, those who did not feel friendly toward China rose to 58.2 percent.

A parallel survey in China showed that more than half the people do not feel close to Japan. The survey, conducted by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, showed that 53.6 percent of Chinese "do not feel close" to Japanese or feel "very much unneighborly." By comparison, in 2002, such sentiments were expressed by 43.3 percent of respondents, a 10.3-point difference in two years.

Friendly ties between Japan and China are important to East Asia. Unless leaders of the two countries manage the relationship better, the region may be in for a future period of turbulence.

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

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