By Shi Yinhong
China-Japan relations may have been in a state of almost continuous deterioration in the three years before Shinzo Abe's election last fall, but the crisis provided an opportunity in the shape of worry and fear.
By the time Junichiro Koizumi's term as Japanese prime minister was up in September 2006, his successor already had more worries and fears than he had anticipated.
Abe faced growing criticism of Koizumi's attitude toward China and Japan's slide toward international isolation as a result of its stand on history and the resulting China policy. "Abe's direction" produced a dramatically softened China strategy alongside a push for Japan's "military normalization" and nationalistic politics even more pronounced than Koizumi's.
Chinese leaders have long looked for opportunities to improve the country's ties with Japan. They have been concerned with the negative impact of a protracted confrontation between China and Japan.
They immediately identified "Abe's direction" as suited to China's interests and decided to make a daring but wise strategic experiment as soon as Abe became Japanese prime minister. They agreed to receive him in China even if he refused to promise not to visit the Yasukuni Shrine. The goal was to resume high-level contacts between leaders of the two countries and create an "ice-breaking" opportunity for the frozen bilateral ties.
This decision prompted Abe to further soften his attitude toward China, making it even harder for him to reverse course (especially by visiting the Yasukuni Shrine again), while markedly improving China's international image and status in respect to China-Japan relations.
In the six months following Abe's China visit last October, China-Japan ties have been strengthened thanks to good will, caution and dedication.
Particularly noteworthy is the improved atmosphere in which the two countries have worked to develop bilateral ties despite fundamental disputes remaining largely unresolved.
It was against this backdrop that the "ice-thawing visit" to Japan by Premier Wen Jiabao took place last week. The trip was conducted according to the emerging strategy and achieved broader results than anticipated thanks to Wen's statesmanship and charm.
The China-Japan Joint Press Statement, based on talks between the two leaders, lays out the principles for a strategic relationship of mutual benefit between the two nations. It significantly expands the range of China-Japan relations as well as the basic rules.
The relationship moves from being limited to the issues of history and Taiwan to including East Asia security, energy and environmental protection, military exchanges, building mutual trust, economic and technological cooperation to further global stability and development.
This has opened up a prospect of great significance: the possibility of China-Japan relations heading into the new stage described by Wen.
The joint statement largely redefined the multi-level and multi-content mechanism for dialogue between the two governments. The high-level economic dialogue is particularly noteworthy because it is a first in the history of China-Japan bilateral ties.
Another decision expressed in the joint statement is the plan for large-scale exchanges that will include young people. Both governments worked hard before Wen's visit to resolve the major dispute over the East China Sea.
Unfortunately, no pre-visit breakthroughs were made. Nevertheless, in addition to reiterating the general principles of mutual benefit and joint development, the two sides promised to speed up bilateral talks in an effort to develop a detailed plan to move the process ahead.
Wen's speech to the Japanese Parliament won widespread praise from the world press as well as that of the two countries. In addition to reiterating the facts of the catastrophe inflicted on China by Japan's war of aggression and making the point that Japan must learn from history, Wen attracted particular attention with new or relatively new key points.
He said that the Chinese and Japanese nations learned and borrowed from each other in ancient and near-modern times; since 1972, Japanese leaders have admitted to the war of aggression and expressed remorse; they have apologized to victimized countries on multiple occasions and won positive responses from the Chinese people and government.
He made the point that since World War II, China recognized that Japan was becoming a nation of peace and the Chinese people will never forget Japan's support for China's reform and opening to the outside world as well as its drive toward modernization.
Existing and potential major difficulties still threaten China-Japan relations. The long-standing major disputes between the two countries have not been resolved and appear unlikely to be resolved in the foreseeable future.
The countries' broad cooperation faces obstacles posed by the media and politics as a result of deep-rooted mutual suspicion. Despite the successful "ice-thawing" trip, there still exist many threats to bilateral ties, of which a possible visit to Yasukuni Shrine by Abe is an obvious one.
From a broader perspective, there will always be variants in China-Japan relations, but they can turn for the better, not just for the worse.
Considering the improvement of bilateral ties since Abe's China visit last October and the achievements of Wen's Japan trip last week, we have reason to believe the China-Japan relationship will grow steadily and markedly in the days to come.
The author is a professor of international relations at the School of International Studies at Renmin University of China.
(China Daily April 18, 2007)