Sino-Japanese relations officially on the upswing

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A group of 1,000 Japanese youngsters will be visiting the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai from Oct 27 to 30, another step toward restoring soured bilateral relations.

Originally scheduled on Sept 21, the trip had to be postponed due to the rift between the two countries caused by a boat collision and consequent diplomatic rows. 

According to Japan-China Friendship Association, a prominent Japanese group that aims to promote mutual understanding, China has agreed to receive the group delayed by the diplomatic incident.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu reaffirmed the importance of people-to-people exchange to the improvement of the bilateral relations and "welcome more Japanese young people to visit the Expo".

Sino-Japanese relations have been severely jeopardized after Japan illegally detained the captain of a Chinese trawler, 41-year-old Zhan Qixiong, whose vessel had an accident with two Japanese patrol ships in waters off the Diaoyu Islands on Sept 7.

Beijing then cut off all levels of contact with Tokyo - from ministerial-level contact to cultural and social exchanges.

The most severe tensions in recent years between the Asian giants lasted for about three weeks, until the captain was finally home after more than two weeks of illegal detention.

Most notably, Premier Wen Jiabao sat down for an unscheduled discussion on Oct 6 on the sidelines of the 8th Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) - a clear endeavor to put Sino-Japanese ties back on track.

A more recent signal was the discussion between the countries' defense ministers on how to properly handle the dispute over the Diaoyu Islands on Monday, resuming the first ministerial-level contact after the incident.

Despite all the efforts to reinvigorate bilateral ties, disparity still remains.

Some Japanese politicians, including a former cabinet minister, Bo Haraguchi, have recently conducted a so-called aerial inspection on a chartered plane to protect the Diaoyu Islands as their territory, according to Japan's Kyodo News Agency.

But historical facts and international law have made it an undeniable truth that the Diaoyu Islands belong to China, and the islands have no historical terra nullius status.

China has reiterated its stance toward the Diaoyu Islands to Japan. "Such illegal behaviors can only dampen the bilateral relations and jeopardize China's territory and sovereignty," said Ma, the spokesman, at the same news conference.

China is resolute in its commitments to improve and develop its relationship with Japan, which is conductive to the fundamental interests of both nations - and the region at large.

"Based on the four political documents between Japan and China, we propose to settle sensitive issues through dialogue with Japan, under the spirits of mutual benefit," Ma said.

Both public diplomacy and Japan's domestic politics have played equally important, yet controversial roles in Sino-Japanese relations.

Friendly groups and frequent people-to-people contacts were once among the crucial momentum that finalized the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1972.

However, nationalist sentiments, from time to time, have been disturbing the ties in the past decades.

The frequently changing cabinet of Japan is also a factor that undermines the predictability of the bilateral relations.

It is because this relationship is important, sensitive and vulnerable, according to Gao Hong, an expert on Japan studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

"Apart from realistic concerns and territorial dispute, historical legacies still have lingering effects on the Sino-Japanese relations," he said. "Therefore, political documents on the government level are insufficient to set a reconciliatory tune between the countries."

If the bilateral ties rely to a large extent on national sentiments, a quick resumption of people-to-people exchanges are thus essential to get the diplomatic relations back on track, said Gao.

Gao said the "aerial inspection" conducted by the Japanese politicians was no doubt negative for the revival of the relationship. But, he added, it could also manifest underlying domestic politics struggles.

"One of the politicians, Bo Haraguchi, for example, used to hold a mild attitude toward China," Gao said. "But due to his absence from the newly formed cabinet last month, Haraguchi had to express his discontent by fanning a flare on the territorial dispute, through which the national sentiments could be easily aroused."

Nevertheless, the mainstream of the bilateral relations remains steady and healthy, as growing interdependence has shaped the two countries to respect each other's fundamental interests.

The key to a stablity is to strike a balance, Gao added.

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