Forever apart or what?
Tue, May 06, 2008
The Straits Times

E gulf in understanding between China and Japan ought not be confused with the comfort level between incumbent leaders. The psychic wounds on the Chinese side are so deeply seared and Japan's official view of wartime events is so ambiguous it is not possible to heal the breach for all time. Yet relations are better than in years. President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao are both comfortable with Japan's Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda in a manner they never were with the maverick leader Junichiro Koizumi. The chemistry will be on open display when Mr Hu begins a week-long visit today, as was also evident when Mr Fukuda travelled to Beijing in December shortly after he replaced Mr Shinzo Abe. China's leaders pay reverential homage to the Fukuda lineage as the prime minister's father, Mr Takeo Fukuda, formally ended hostilities with China with a peace treaty signed in 1978, when most Liberal Democratic Party leaders of his generation were dismissive of a pre-capitalist China. Three decades later, it is no use pretending that relations are made any easier by the reversal of fortunes. China is reclaiming its superpower status of its dynastic epoch, which is making the LDP- mould of politicians and old-time zaibatsu leaders resentful; whereas Japan is in decline, a position they could never abide as their nation was undisputed king in Asia, as if by birthright. They also knew Japan was never superpower material at the peak of its economic strength in the 1980s. They are not sure if China will wear its power lightly. This troubles the Japanese people.

These cycles complicate the historical burden they share. There are enough current niggling differences that will make Mr Hu's visit not all smooth, although he suggested to Japanese reporters in a pre-tour meeting that he seeks to build ties on the basis of common interests. Tibet, Taiwan, energy exploration and even an inconclusive investigation into food safety issues are enough to keep their foreign ministries busy. But these are nowhere as harmful as an inability by both sides to decide once and for all how they want to consign the deadweight of history. Kyodo news agency reports that the communique to sum up the Hu visit will likely soft-pedal the issue: no avowal of 'responsibility' or 'reflections' concerning the wartime invasion, only acknowledgement that Japan should face up to history. President Jiang Zemin's 1998 visit elicited in the joint statement Japan's 'deep remorse' for its aggression. Essentially, the lack of finality means the issue will be left to future generations to decide. For now, any warming in a vital relationship that corresponds with how favourably the two nations' sitting leaders regard one another is still to be savoured.

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