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Friday, June 30, 2006

Rewriting the line on Japan


HONG KONG -- There are encouraging signs that both China and Japan are looking for ways to ease the prolonged deadlock between their two countries and improve relations -- an essential prerequisite to any strengthening of East Asian regional integration and the eventual emergence of an Asian community.

The most visible sign is the resumption by Japan of loans to China. Japan is offering $660 million to be used in 10 projects, involving environmental protection, human resources and education.

Loans to China, which started in 1979, were suspended last year amid rising tensions and violent anti-Japanese demonstrations in several cities in China.

The resumption of the loans is a sign that Japan wants improved relations. But Beijing clearly considers this insufficient. Chinese spokesmen continue to call on Japan to "take sincere and concrete actions for the improvement and development of China-Japan relations."

Presumably, this means a public declaration that Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi will stop visiting Yasukuni Shrine, where Japan's war dead, including Class-A war criminals, are enshrined.

While China still refuses to meet Koizumi, a meeting of the two foreign ministers was held in Doha last month on the margins of the Asian Cooperation Dialogue ministerial meeting. This was the first such meeting in a year. Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing and his Japanese counterpart, Taro Aso, met for well over an hour. The two men agreed to resume the security dialogue between the two countries, which should help build trust and enhance understanding. In addition, they agreed to speed up talks to resolve differences over mutual claims to underwater gas deposits in the East China Sea.

Aso, in a major speech after the Doha meeting, said Japan, China and South Korea held a common view on the future of Asia and thus must "create forward-looking relationships, promoting dialogue and exchanges across a wide spectrum of fields, with the future of Asia as a whole firmly in mind."

He called on the countries of the region to work toward the common dream of an Asian community. "The Asia of the future," he said, "must not get entangled in the mold that forms nation-states nor in the trap that is nationalism."

The Japanese side has made it clear that it would like another meeting next month, when the two foreign ministers attend the ASEAN Regional Forum in Kuala Lumpur. So far, however, China is playing hard-to-get and has declined to confirm such a meeting.

But if China is serious about wanting to improve relations with Japan, it should show that it is just as anxious as Japan to hold talks at the highest political level acceptable to both sides. China should keep up the momentum and take advantage of the ARF meeting to hold another round of ministerial discussions. Japan has made clear that it is willing to meet with China anyplace, anytime. In the eyes of the international community, China is the one dragging its feet.

Moreover, while Beijing is calling on Tokyo to take steps to improve the bilateral relationship, there are things that China can and should do. After all, the negative image that Chinese people have of Japan is to a large extent a reflection of Chinese communist propaganda over the years that emphasized the party's role in resisting Japanese aggression in the 1930s and 1940s.

At the same time, Beijing has given Japan little credit for its large-scale economic aid to China for more than a quarter of a century. Because the controlled press has not publicized this information, the vast majority of Chinese remain ignorant of the help Japan has extended to China, especially when the country was on the verge of bankruptcy as it emerged from the Cultural Revolution.

Only now are scholars in China beginning to speak up about the one-sidedness of Chinese propaganda. One scholar, Tao Wenzhao of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, has suggested that China should "recognize Japan's contributions to China's economic construction" and has pointed out that Japan was the first country to lift economic sanctions imposed on China after the Tiananmen Square massacre.

Since the party controls the press, it should be entirely possible for Beijing to gradually change its propaganda line on Japan. China, which has excoriated Japan for its distortions of history, should do its best to present a balanced picture of Japan rather than let itself be guilty of distortions.

If the Chinese government does take such actions, then the chances are good that there will be a radical improvement in the relationship.

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


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