By Yasushi Kudo
After about 25 hours of discussion, some 90 Japanese and Chinese experts at the recent Tokyo-Beijing Forum agreed to come up with specific proposals regarding current concerns between the two countries.
But perhaps more meaningfully, the forum broke a long-standing impasse in Japan-China ties.
The forum was viewed as a viable "track two diplomacy" channel, facilitating interaction among individuals and groups outside of the official negotiation process.
No leader of Japan or China has visited the other country for five years now because of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's repeated visits to Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine. Unfortunately, private-level interactions between citizens of the two nations have also stagnated.
Amid such an environment, Genron NPO, a Japanese not-for-profit organization, approached various representatives in China with a proposal to hold a Tokyo-Beijing Forum in the Chinese capital in the summer of 2005.
Those who agreed to take part in this new trial of a private framework for dialogue included China Daily and Peking University's School of International Studies.
The forum is now an annual event projected to continue for a decade.
The latest such dialogue was held in Tokyo this month, a time with special meaning for both countries.
August marks the anniversary of the end of the World War II, as well as the month when the problem of Koizumi's visits to the Yasukuni Shrine arises each year, sparking emotional responses from China and other Asian countries. And this year's forum came just ahead of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party's presidential election, to be held in early September, which will decide the country's next prime minister.
Under such circumstances, parties from both Japan and China proposed postponing this year's forum in Japan. But the forum went ahead as planned, and 35 Chinese experts, including seven Cabinet-level officials, visited Japan to meet with 50 Japanese opinion leaders, including ministers, top-level LDP officials, businesspeople and media representatives.
The total audience for the general meeting and separate sessions over the two days surpassed 1,000 people, making it an event of unprecedented scale. At every session, specific suggestions were made regarding co-operation and interaction between the two countries.
This is evidence that the forum has developed from a simple setting for discussion to a process driven by the private sector to come up with specific problem-solving projects.
Although all sessions at the first forum in Beijing in 2005 were held behind closed doors, sessions were open to the public this year with the exception of those dealing with natural resources and historical issues. One session was even broadcast live on cable television. In response to a suggestion at the forum, Genron NPO and China Daily have agreed to jointly set up a website to regularly publicize discussions.
The forum also stimulated the two governments to take both formal and substantive initiatives to improve their relations.
Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, now leading the LDP's presidential race, distanced himself from past remarks to express his enthusiasm for improving relations with China, saying, "The Japan-China relationship is one of the most important bilateral relationships," and, "I would like to put our partnership back into gear."
In response, Wang Yi, the Chinese ambassador to Japan, said, "I would like to rebuild mutual respect between the new leaders of the two countries."
Ironically, it was discovered later the same day that Abe had visited Yasukuni Shrine in April, and the topic filled Japanese newspapers the following morning.
Still, Abe's remarks not only directly reached the Chinese Government but were also widely reported in Chinese media.
The door to a Japan-China summit, long tightly shut, is about to be opened by such messages.
Joint annual Japan-China opinion polls used within forum discussions show that public sentiment in both countries regarding the other has been unstable and stagnant. Last year's survey showed a serious lack of basic mutual understanding and a gap in knowledge between peoples of the two countries.
A change from simple discussion to a "meaningful exchange" that would lead to private-level diplomacy was therefore considered necessary. Forum participants believe that Japan-China relations must improve and that private-level diplomatic efforts are necessary to achieve this.
At the keynote speech at the forum's general meeting, Zhao Qizheng, a former director of the State Council's Information Office, pointed out the importance of "public diplomacy" positioned between private-level exchanges and government diplomacy.
Hidenao Nakagawa, chairman of the LDP's policy research council, meanwhile, proposed "a new Asian community" and said the private sector should be the main player.
But the process has just begun. The Tokyo-Beijing Forum will undertake continuous discussions and work towards next year's meeting in Beijing both to improve relations between the two countries and to solve pending issues.
The article is an excerpt from a story published in Asahi Shimbun. In 2001, the author became the head of Genron NPO, a non-profit organization that makes policy proposals through symposiums and other forums.
(China Daily August 29, 2006)