As the Chinese and Japanese foreign ministers met Wednesday on the sidelines of the Asia Co-operation Dialogue in Doha, Qatar, it was the fact that they finally met and talked after a year-long absence of ministerial-level communication that really mattered.
We had not expected the Doha meeting to generate excitement. It was, to a certain extent, just another opportunity for each side to say what has been said many times.
Indeed, the chief diplomats of the two countries did not move much further beyond that formality.
Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing reiterated the stance that Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's visits to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, where 14 Class-A war criminals sentenced by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East are enshrined, are the biggest obstacle to a thaw in bilateral ties; while his Japanese counterpart, Taro Aso, repeated Koizumi's appeal for Chinese understanding of his refusal to change course.
As far as that lingering irritant is concerned, nothing seemed to have changed. We may have to live with the Yasukuni ghosts until at least the end of the Koizumi era in Japanese politics. Beyond that, nobody knows.
There is little likelihood of Koizumi taking any steps to improve the situation during his last days in office, even if that is the only way to mend the strained relationship.
But neither of these two neighbors can afford to ignore the other, this fact is dictated by political and economic realities.
Such a protracted political estrangement may have high economic costs for both parties, costs being increasingly felt on both sides.
There is no easy solution to the diplomatic conundrum between the two nations, since the Japanese leaders refuse to budge from their erroneous stance on the question of history.
But for a genuine rapport to emerge across the narrow strip of water that divides the two nations, there has to be trust in the first place. To build that confidence, they first have to communicate.
The true value of Wednesday's meeting lies exactly there it re-opened a window for dialogue at a level where meaningful decisions can be made.
That it happened at all shows that neither side wants to see a continuation of the current stalemate. That message is important at such a point.
The two sides' agreement to continue to consult over topics of dispute shows a desire to limit differences within a manageable scope. The proposal to facilitate people-to-people exchanges shows an inspiring pragmatism when the bilateral ties have yet to overcome the Yasukuni snag at the government level.
Governments and leaders change over time, but not the people.
So it is essential for the two peoples to know more about each other.
(China Daily May 25, 2006)