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China and Japan seek 'warm spring'

As Japan prepares for the first visit by a Chinese head of state for a decade, the BBC's Chris Hogg reports from Tokyo on why the two countries are anxious to overcome their deep differences.
Chinese students in Xian read Japanese literature in bookshop
Japan wants to improve its image among the Chinese

Oil and dumplings. Pandas and ping-pong. The first two are reasons why Japan and China's relationship is not as good as both countries would like it to be. The second two are ways they hope to improve matters.

China's President Hu Jintao arrives in Japan for his longest state visit to one country since he became president in 2003. It is a sign, analysts say, of the importance his advisers attach to this relationship with Japan.

It is also the first visit by a Chinese head of state to Japan in a decade.

The last, by the then President Jiang Zemin, was regarded by many as a disaster after both sides quarrelled over whether or not Japan had issued a strong enough apology for its wartime aggression.

This time it has to be different. China wants to avoid any high-profile row with its near neighbour so close to the Olympic Games in August. Japan wants co-operation from China on efforts to fight global warming and other issues, ahead of the G8 Summit it will host in July.

Pessimism

But there are problems. First the oil. Chinese and Japanese officials have held 11 rounds of negotiations to try to reach agreement over joint exploration for oil and natural gas resources in the East China Sea in an area both claim sovereignty over.

The very fact this visit is happening at all is an achievement, it is the result of a reality that neither country can ignore - each needs the other

There were hopes that the issue would be resolved in time for the summit. As late as last week, foreign ministry officials in Tokyo were pessimistic that a comprehensive agreement would be reached.

Then there are the dumplings. Around 10 Japanese people fell ill in late January after eating Chinese-made dumplings that had been poisoned with pesticide.

This prompted widespread concern here about the safety of Chinese products, and Japan's reliance on Chinese food.

Investigators from both countries have worked together on the case and concluded this was a deliberate poisoning attempt, not a food safety issue. So far, though, they have been unable to find the culprit.

Such was the level of public hysteria about the case at the time, Japanese ministers worried publicly it would harm bilateral relations.

And in remarks to Japanese journalists last week, President Hu felt the need to express his hope that both countries could continue to co-operate to seek the truth of what had happened.

Protest planned

Then there is Tibet. This issue really has the diplomats sweating behind the scenes.

Pro-Tibet protest during torch relay in Nagano, Japan
Tibet is an issue that could continue to damage relations

"Both sides will be looking for a way to 'park' the Tibet issue," says Professor Phil Deans from Temple University in Tokyo.

"It's a very difficult area for the Japanese. The Chinese will get very upset or angry if there is any public criticism, so it will be interesting to see how they handle it."

"Hu Jintao's visit was scheduled to have been the final stage of improvement in relations that got worse during the time of [former Prime Minister Junichiro] Koizumi," says Tokyo University Professor Shinichi Kitaoka, "but the troubles over dumplings and then Tibet have caused new and difficult challenges."

Pro-Tibet supporters plan to demonstrate in Tokyo during the visit. But, privately Japanese officials say China's decision to talk to representatives of the Dalai Lama, which Japan asked for, has helped eased tensions between the two countries.

Professor Kitaoka argues, though, that the real issue that needs to be addressed is the image many Chinese, especially the younger generation, have of the Japanese. He feels that decades of nationalistic education have left many in China with a particularly negative impression of Japan.

'Warm spring'

This is a concern shared by officials in Japan's administration, and is one reason why President Hu Jintao's programme will include visits to temples, meetings with students and even a game of ping-pong with the Japanese prime minister.

Japanese packers check recalled food - photo 1 February
There is deep concern in Japan about Chinese food products

President Hu says he wants his visit to herald a "warm spring" in relations between the two powers.

It is a reference to the diplomatic "deep freeze" when China suspended top-level meetings between the two countries' leaders for five years because of Mr Koizumi's repeated visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, a place China believes glorifies militarism.

"Koizumi's repeated visits to the shrine were a terrible period for bilateral relations," says Professor Koichi Nakano from Tokyo's Sophia University.

Despite the fact that trade between the two countries is flourishing - China replaced the United States as Japan's largest trading partner last year - it is a reflection of just how bad things got that on diplomacy and security issues there is still a long way to go before the relationship could be described as healthy.

Visible sign

In that context the very fact this visit is happening at all is an achievement. It is the result of a reality that neither country can ignore. Each needs the other.

Beijing wants Japanese technology and investment to develop its economy still further.

Japan wants to sell more of its products to the Chinese, particularly as demand in other important markets like the US slows.

What is more, China wants to make clear it is not a threat to Japan or to anyone else in East Asia, in the hope it will be left alone to develop its economy and modernise its military without interference from outside.

And the Japanese want to manage China's rise as an economic and political power in Asia, and by implication their own decline from economic pre-eminence in this part of the world, by binding their country close to Beijing.

This week's visit is unlikely to produce agreements of much substance, except perhaps on climate change, but it is still significant as a highly visible sign of how these two countries see their future - one where they will achieve more by working together, than remaining apart.

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