By Feng Zhaokui
"If Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's visit to China last October was an ice-breaking journey, I hope that my visit to Japan in April will be an ice-melting one," Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said at a press conference on March 16 concluding the annual session of the National People's Congress.
In the meantime, during their visit to Beijing, Hidenao Nakagawa, Secretary-General of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), and Kazuo Kitagawa, Secretary-General of the New Komeito party, (both parties are in the ruling coalition), said the two sides should remove the "drifting ice" and adopt a win-win strategy in resolving the problems in their bilateral ties.
The phrases "ice-breaking," "ice-melting" and "removing the drifting ice" accurately describe the fact that Sino-Japanese ties have moved out of a five-year-long impasse and onto the path of continuous normalization and stabilization of the two countries' relationship.
Chinese President Hu Jintao has stressed that it is important to treat the bilateral ties and deepen the friendship between the two countries from a strategic perspective. During Abe's visit in October 2006, the leaders decided to develop "strategic, mutually beneficial ties." In late January, Japan "upgraded" its "comprehensive policy dialogue" to a "strategic dialogue," signaling a consensus on approaching bilateral ties from a strategic perspective.
The key connotation of the word "strategic" is the relationship between the "parts" and the "whole." When addressing disputes -- that is, "removing drifting ice" -- one should not only see the leaves but also the forest. Although each tree in the forest is important, one cannot maintain a tree at the cost of the entire forest.
As the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping pointed out, maintaining friendly cooperation between the two countries is a mission not only endowed by history, but also by reality. Whoever the Chinese or Japanese leader is, he must not violate this precondition. From a strategic point of view, any differences or difficulties in bilateral ties are temporary, insubstantial and not insurmountable. The friendship between China and Japan is the overarching theme that outweighs any "differences or difficulties."
From a strategic point of view, the friendship between China and Japan is the trunk of a tree, whereas frictions and conflicts between the two countries are some leaves. The late Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai once said that we should "seek common ground on major questions while reserving differences on minor ones." We should not endanger our friendship just because of some differences. This serves as a good guideline for Sino-Japanese relations and for the handling of such issues as the war legacy and the disputes over the East China Sea. Since 2001, former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's frequent visits to the Yasukuni Shrine damaged bilateral ties. We must learn a lesson from this and avoid such an impasse in the future.
Wen's trip is the first one that a Chinese premier has paid to Japan in the past seven years. We are confident that this historic visit will be successful, and the expectations of the two leaders and two peoples to strengthen bilateral ties will melt the hard and drifting ice between them. After a farewell to the cold winter of bilateral ties, we are ready to embrace the warm spring.
Sino-Japanese relations are the ties between the two peoples. Wen remarked, "Developing friendship is the common aspiration of the two peoples, which cannot be blocked by anyone." The bilateral relations are not to fulfill the global ambition of any big power, or to win votes for any political party, but to benefit the peoples in the two countries, as well as the people in Asia and the world.
Who is developing Sino-Japanese relations? It is the two peoples. Centuries of friendship between the two brought about the normalization of bilateral ties in 1972, a milestone in the historically friendly relations between the two nations.
The trade volume between China and Japan surpassed $200 billion in 2006. China is expected to replace the United States as the leading trade partner of Japan in 2007. If the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) is included, trade between China and Japan has already surpassed that between China and the United States. As Kitagawa of the New Komeito party said, "The economies of China and Japan are interdependent and inseparable," and hence the economic ties should be a win-win game rather than a zero sum game. China's growth into an economic power is in the interests of Japan. Japan has emerged from "a lost decade," which is in the interests of China. Economic interactions between the two countries will further enhance mutual understanding.
Economic interactions between countries usually contribute to the reduction of conflict or friction over political and national security issues. However, as political interests and national security are higher priorities for a nation, economic interactions have a limited role in preventing nations from clashing with each other. Out of political and national security considerations, a country tends to care not only about how much it has, but more about how much others have. A country often worries that the growing economic power of its rival might turn into military power and hence pose a military threat to it.
As a Chinese scholar once said, "Trust is both the precondition and the product of cooperation." If Japan sees the peaceful development of China as a threat, while Asian countries such as China worry about the resurgence of Japan's militarism, then the mutual confidence between the two countries will be weakened. This discomfort and skepticism are magnified through the lens of history. The precondition for a strategic, mutually beneficial relationship is to overcome the lack of trust and a sense of insecurity, and enhance strategic confidence.
China and Japan should develop a "culture of trust." A culture of trust will foster trust, while a culture of distrust can evoke distrust. One key issue in bilateral relations is how to remove distrust and promote trust. Summit-level exchanges between the two countries will improve bilateral relations and deepen mutual understanding and trust in a way that is unparalleled by other types of visits, because of the intensive communications between the two sides to prepare for the summit visits, including discussions of diplomatic protocol arrangements and press releases, dialogues between politicians and business people accompanying the leaders, and discussions between the media and ordinary persons, as well as domestic and foreign media coverage of the visits.
Highlighting the significance of summit-level visits is not to undermine the importance of person-to-person contact. History reveals that "civilian diplomacy" paved the way for former Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka's visit to China and for the normalization of diplomatic ties between China and Japan in 1972. In the same vein, "civilian diplomacy," that is, person-to-person contact, has played an important role in the recent "re-normalization" of Sino-Japanese relations.
Being close neighbors across a narrow strip of water, there are favorable timing, geographical and human conditions for China and Japan to strengthen bilateral exchanges. "Favorable timing" refers to the overall tide of the era, that is, peace and development, globalization and regional economic integration, and increasing concern over such new challenges as environmental pollution. "Favorable geographical conditions" refers to the geographical proximity of the two countries. People can go across the border without suffering from jet lag, and cargo does not have to be transported over a long distance on the sea.
By "favorable human conditions" we mean that as Eastern countries, China and Japan adhere to a Confucian culture, which values "peace" and "trust." In the spirit of peace and trust, the two peoples have gotten along well with each other for over 2,000 years.
By "setting into motion the two wheels of exchange at the level of top leaders and statesmen, as well as through people-to-people exchange," we believe that the "culture of trust" between China and Japan will grow. With a "culture of trust," the two countries will be honest with each other, take history as a mirror and look forward to the future, and abide by the three political documents they have signed.
The author is senior research fellow at the Institute of Japanese Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences
(Beijing Review April 9, 2007)