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Despite Sticking Points, Relations Enter New Era
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By Zhang Tuosheng

China-Japan relations made remarkable progress following the normalization of ties in 1972. However, with profound changes taking place throughout the world as well as within the two countries, relations have been in a protracted period of turbulence since the early 1990s.

Friction between the two nations grew in frequency as well as in tension levels. In 2005, bilateral ties hit rock bottom as all high-level contacts were suspended. The serious deterioration of China-Japan relations has not only badly hurt the strategic interests of both countries but also aroused grave concern in the international community.

Through efforts by both sides, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited China last October, shortly after his election. During that visit, leaders of the two countries reached a consensus on working together to overcome political obstacles, fully resume high-level contacts, push forward balanced development of political and economic ties, and build a mutually beneficial strategic relationship.

That visit broke the long political stalemate between the two countries, opening the door for growing bilateral relations. Since then, China-Japan ties have shown marked signs of progress.

But, Sino-Japanese relations are only beginning to improve. The three major points of friction between the two nations history, the East China Sea, Taiwan still exist. The emotional standoff between the two peoples caused by these frictions won't go away any time soon. And it is even more difficult to turn current strategic suspicions between the two sides into strategic mutual trust in the near future. Besides, numerous differences remain on how to build strategic mutual trust.

Against this backdrop Premier Wen Jiabao's Japan visit, which begins today, is all the more significant and will have a great impact on the future development of bilateral relations.

First of all, in Wen's own words, this visit will be an "ice-melting" trip in the wake of the "ice-breaking" one by Abe last year. This means one of the key tasks of the premier's Japan trip will be expanding in-depth discussions on joint efforts to overcome political obstacles and appropriately resolve other major issues between the two nations. This includes advancing talks on the East China Sea issue and coordinating policies aimed at maintaining peace in the Taiwan Straits.

Second, this visit will kick-start the process of building a mutually beneficial strategic relationship between China and Japan. Wen clearly told reporters at a recent press conference that, during his Japan tour, the two sides would construct a joint document dealing with a strategic relationship of mutual benefit on the basis of the existing three political documents normalizing bilateral ties. He sees the signing of this document as a significant event symbolizing a new phase in Sino-Japanese relations.
During this visit the two sides are expected to decide on a series of concrete steps to beef up all-round bilateral cooperation dealing with the economy, energy resources, environmental protection and nuclear non-proliferation; speed up the development of relations between the countries' armed forces, conspicuously lagging behind other areas; and establish a mechanism for a patient dialogue on issues where the two sides have differences as well as agreements.

Third, this visit will further strengthen high-level contacts between the two sides and create a mechanism for future contacts. In current international relations, especially among major powers, frequent contacts between national leaders are irreplaceable in promoting nation-to-nation relations. They help both sides form a relationship of mutual confidence. Unfortunately, such high-level contacts between China and Japan had become one of the weakest links in their bilateral ties in recent years as relations deteriorated dramatically.

Since last October, we have seen rapid improvement, with leaders of the two countries meeting four times in the past three months. Wen's current visit will offer leaders of both nations more time to get to know each other and create better conditions for future reciprocal visits by Abe and President Hu Jintao.

Fourth, this visit will improve the environment for the development of bilateral ties. As the first visit to Japan by a Chinese premier in seven years, it will be intensely watched by the media of both countries.

The visit will also raise the curtain for commemorating the 35th anniversary of the normalization of China-Japan relations and inaugurate the Year of Sino-Japanese Sports Exchanges.

Media coverage of this visit and the series of commemorative activities and exchanges that follows will not only help the two peoples better know each other but also enhance the environment for positive interaction in both countries.

It is vital to both countries to seize this opportunity to propel bilateral relations into a new mutually beneficial era. This is an important reason for Wen's trip. We expect the visit to be a total success.

The author is a researcher with the China Foundation for International and Strategic Studies.

(China Daily April 11, 2007)

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