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Last Updated: Friday, 13 April 2007, 15:16 GMT 16:16 UK
New course in Sino-Japanese ties
By Chris Hogg
BBC News, Tokyo

Wen Jiabao (left) and Shinzo Abe
The two leaders have agreed to hold regular summits

China's Prime Minister Wen Jiabao strode into the parliamentary chamber of Japan's Imperial Diet to a warm round of applause from lawmakers.

It was a remarkable sight. This time last year Mr Wen was refusing to talk to the then Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

Now Mr Koizumi's successor Shinzo Abe was sitting there in the front row clapping along with everyone else.

So what has changed? Clearly the Chinese have decided Mr Abe is someone they can do business with.

The best evidence of that is their somewhat muted response to the "comfort women" row earlier this year.

The Japanese prime minister provoked anger overseas after he said there was no evidence that the Imperial Army had forced women to work as sex slaves, or comfort women as they were known euphemistically, in government-run brothels during World War II.

Although his comments attracted some criticism in China it was nothing like the firestorm they might have provoked in the past.

Admittedly, Mr Abe moved fast to try to limit the damage of his comments by making clear he stood by the government's 1993 apology to the comfort women.

Professor Shinichi Kitaoka
Probably we may be able to narrow the gap a little bit, but we are not expecting to reach the same perception
Prof Kitaoka on a joint project to resolve historical differences

But this week, when Mr Wen stood at the podium in the Diet, he did not scold as Chinese leaders might have done in the past, but delivered an unusually even-handed analysis of the two countries' war-time past.

"The war left indescribable scars and pain in Chinese people's hearts," he said, "but also caused enormous suffering and pain to the Japanese."

"I don't want to dwell in the past," he added.

It is the future he is concentrating on. Trade between the two countries has already surpassed $200bn each year and it is growing.

During his trip he appealed for Japanese expertise and technology to help China sustain its economic growth.

Shrine controversy

Both governments have agreed it seems to try to reduce the chances of the "history issue" causing problems for them.

They have set up a joint committee of Chinese and Japanese historians to study 2,000 years of their shared history and draw up a report setting out their positions and discussing why they differ.

"By asking historians to discuss these issues, the top leaders can say, 'These issues are now being discussed by historians, let's go solve the real issues before us'," says Shinichi Kitaoka, a history professor from the University of Tokyo, who is leading the Japanese team of historians.

"By bringing serious historians to the same table and having serious discussions, the real differences [between us] will become obvious," he adds.

So how likely is it that they will resolve those differences?

The professor appears to be a realist. "Probably we may be able to narrow the gap a little bit, but we are not expecting to reach the same perception for it is impossible even for scholars," he says.

Over the next few months, the group will be writing papers setting out their positions on the topics each historian has been assigned.

Then the hard part of trying to reach common ground gets under way in the autumn.

The Chinese appear to be deploying one more tactic to try to avoid any further controversy in the months to come.

Mr Abe is unpopular at home. A spat with the Chinese could cost him further support among the business community in particular who see friendly relations with China as an opportunity they want to cash in on
By agreeing to regular summits - the next one being a trip to Beijing for Prime Minister Abe in the autumn - they have a carrot to dangle in front of the Japanese.

The stick is the regular warnings, both explicit and implicit, that he should not visit the Yasukuni shrine as his predecessor Junichiro Koizumi did.

The Chinese believe the shrine, where the Japanese honour their war dead, glorifies militarism.

Mr Abe is unpopular at home. A spat with the Chinese could cost him further support among the business community in particular who see friendly relations with China as an opportunity they want to cash in on.

So by agreeing to meet every few months, the Chinese pile the pressure on Mr Abe not to step out of line.

The Japanese prime minister is forced to keep silent on whether or not he intends to visit.

Perhaps that explains why in the Diet, his applause for Mr Wen's speech looked on television to be a little more half-hearted than that of some of his colleagues.

He knows that while history may not be an issue at the moment, there is always the chance it will cause problems in the months ahead.


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