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Sunday, April 8, 2007

China sending a message with energy delegation


Staff writer

A month ago, officials at the Natural Resources and Energy Agency got a shock through Chinese diplomatic channels.

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Shinzo Abe Wen Jiabao

They were being put on notice that more than 100 top executives of major energy firms wanted to come to Japan in mid-April, led by Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, and they hoped to have a session with their counterparts in leading Japanese energy-related firms.

"It sounded almost miraculous that so many top executives of Chinese top energy firms will come at the same time to Japan," an energy agency official said. "But it's very difficult to arrange such a meeting in only one month."

Indeed, it took eight months for Tokyo to prepare and host a Japan-China forum for technical experts on energy-saving technologies last year, the official said.

Despite the short preparation period, 300 to 400 executives of around 100 Japanese energy-related firms have said they will attend the energy forum to be held Thursday, the second day of Wen's three-day trip to Japan.

The energy agency has yet to reveal the specific names of Chinese companies and executives that will be attending, but it has said top executives from major electric, gas, oil and coal companies will be in the delegation.

"I think Japanese firms have decided to participate because they think this is a very rare opportunity," the official said.

The size and members of Wen's delegation itself may be a signal to Tokyo: China is putting economic growth first -- ahead of political issues.

It appears China has been trying to avoid politically sensitive issues ahead of Wen's visit, which is a return call to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's surprise visit to Beijing in October.

"Now both Japan and China are trying to create a friendly atmosphere," a senior Foreign Ministry official said recently.

Keio University professor and China expert Tomoyuki Kojima said Beijing desperately needs the cooperation of Japanese firms to overcome energy and environmental problems if it is going to maintain its economic growth.

Whether China can overcoming these problems "could even determine the fate of the administration of (China's President) Hu Jintao," Kojima said.

The country consumes a huge amount of oil to generate economic growth and needs to improve fuel efficiency.

Foreign Minister Taro Aso pointed out Friday that Japan's oil efficiency is eight times better than that of China, quoting data from International Energy Agency, an energy policy adviser to 26 industrialized countries.

"I have told (Chinese Foreign Minister) Li Zhaoxing that China would be able to curb its oil consumption to one-eighth (of the current level) if (it) becomes like us," Aso said when asked to comment on China's energy problems.

Wen, the first prime minister to visit Japan in more than six years, will arrive Wednesday and meet with Prime Minister Abe.

Main points will include joint development of resources in the East China Sea, setting up a mechanism for high-level government talks on economic issues, and discussions on the environment and energy, said Katsuhito Asano, senior vice foreign minister, at a news conference Thursday.

Beijing's determination to develop good relations with Tokyo was apparent last month when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made controversial remarks about the women forced into wartime sex slavery for the Imperial Japanese Army, known euphemistically in Japan as "comfort women."

While the Western media harshly criticized Abe's remarks as an effort to downplay Japan's wartime misdeeds, the Chinese media remained relatively calm and were quick to report when Abe on March 11 offered an apology to the women for their hardships. Most Western media did not immediately report the apology, which was later also repeated during Diet sessions.

To be sure, the political angle will always be important to the Chinese, particularly when it comes to diplomacy with Japan.

At the request of Beijing, Wen's visit will take place right before Yasukuni Shrine starts one of its most important biannual religious ceremonies, Reitai-Sai, on April 21 this year. The shrine has kept saying it wants politicians to come during the ceremony to pray for the souls of dead war soldiers and officers as well as 14 Class-A war criminals from World War II honored at the shrine.

China watchers in Japan believe Wen probably timed his trip to prevent Abe from attending the Yasukuni ceremony because it would be too provocative and risky for him to visit the shrine so soon after such a high-level visit.

"Of course, that could be part of the reason," Keio University's Kojima said.

Kojima said Wen needs to prevent Abe from going to the war-related shrine because of domestic political concerns rather than diplomatic reasons.

If Abe visits Yasukuni despite Beijing's repeated warnings, Wen and Hu would draw criticism from their domestic rivals and the general public for appeasing Japan, Kojima said.

According to a government source, Wen also plans to talk with Daisaku Ikeda, honorary chairman of Soka Gakkai, Japan's largest lay Buddhist group. This has sparked speculation that Wen will urge Soka Gakkai to continue its opposition to prime ministerial visits to Yasukuni.

Soka Gakkai is the main supporter of New Komeito, the junior coalition partner of the Liberal Democratic Party. Abe is also the head of LDP.



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