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Sino-Japanese Ties Face Challenges

Economic and trade exchanges between China and Japan have been expanding over recent years, with bilateral trade expected to reach a record US$200 billion this year. 

However, political ties between the two neighbors experienced just about the biggest setback last year since diplomatic relations were normalized in 1972.


Early last year, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi paid a fourth visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine in his term of office. The shrine honors Japanese who died in World War II, including Class-A war criminals. And at the year's end, the Japanese government gave former Taiwan leader Lee Teng-hui, an advocate of the island's independence, the green light for a "sight-seeing" tour of the country.


On December 10, the Japanese Defense Agency issued a new defense outline, which explicitly states that there exist some non-transparent and uncertain factors involving the Korean Peninsula and the Taiwan Straits.


The agency also warned the Japanese government of China's "attempts to expand its maritime activities" while Japan, with increasing regional clout, is upgrading its missile capacity and modernizing its marine and air forces.


These developments show that Japan has already shifted its military defense emphasis to China, according to some analysts.


Over the past year, the two Asian heavyweights have been involved in a bitter quarrel over the ownership of the Diaoyu Islands and rights and interests in the East China Sea.


Also over the past year, the Japanese government has not hidden its concern over the European Union's move to suspend its arms embargo against China.


China and Japan have had no high-level visits between each other for a number of years.


Ordinary people's feelings towards each other also became more complicated last year.


Koizumi's provocative words and actions involving the Yasukuni Shrine fuelled more hostile sentiments among Chinese towards Japan.


According to polls conducted by the two countries, the number of their citizens holding good opinions towards the other has seen a dramatic decline.


And history is not the only problem plaguing Sino-Japanese ties. Disagreements between the two neighbors on a wide range of issues could possibly further affect Sino-Japanese friendship.


Currently, the biggest problem facing China and Japan is not how the two countries could make bilateral ties closer, but how they can prevent ties from further deteriorating.


Whether Sino-Japanese relations will get better or worse this year will depend on several elements.


Koizumi's attitude toward Yasukuni will be the deciding factor over whether China and Japan can arrange visits to each other by top leaders this year.


On January 4, Koizumi said his attitude towards Yasukuni is not the only major problem between China and Japan.


Such remarks demonstrate that Koizumi has not changed his stance on this issue, although he has showed some degree of flexibility.


Another visit to the Yasukuni Shrine this year, a sensitive year for the Chinese people because it marks the 60th anniversary of end of the war, will inevitably have a negative affect on the already-strained Sino-Japanese relationship, no matter under what pretext it is carried out.


Whether the two countries will escalate their territorial disputes this year will also affect bilateral ties.


On February 9, the Japanese government announced its takeover of a lighthouse built by the country's rightist group on the Diaoyu Islands. On February 14, it also announced that Japanese fishermen will be allowed to fish in the area from April. These moves demonstrate that the Japanese government has already changed its traditional approach to such issues.


In the past, the Japanese government generally remained self-restrained over its territorial disputes with China.


The latest moves, however, testify that the government has already moved up a gear and has taken on a confrontational posture.


Also, the release of an emergency military program for the country's southwestern islands by Japan's Defense Agency also demonstrates Tokyo's intention to solve its territorial disputes with other countries by force.


Sino-Japanese relations will also be influenced by the overall security environment in East Asia, especially US-Japan security cooperation.


On February 19, the United States and Japan held the 2-2 security talks, attended by their foreign affairs and defense ministers. At this meeting, the two allies announced that the Taiwan Straits issue was a common strategic objective.


In this round of security cooperation talks with the United States, Japan became more active and tougher on a series of issues.


It has expressed its desire to impose sanctions upon the Democratic People's Republic of Korea over its nuclear weapons program. On the Taiwan question, Tokyo has made itself clear that it would assist the United States in intervening over any Taiwan Straits affair.


This year marks the 50th anniversary of the establishment of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which plans to come up with a program for constitutional revision in November. It is some Japanese rightists' goal to take advantage of this opportunity to change the country's peaceful constitution and win the right to exercise collective self-defense with US forces.


The influence of Japanese advocating friendship with China is dwindling in Japan.


Under these circumstances, however, China and Japan should continue to expand exchanges and enhance mutual trust in a bid to avoid further problems.


(China Daily March 2, 2005)

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