Wednesday, April 11, 2007

China, Japan pledge closer ties

Source: CNN.

April 11, 2007

TOKYO, Japan (AP) -- Strengthening a fragile detente, Japanese and Chinese leaders meeting in Tokyo pledged Wednesday to work together on North Korea, energy development and the environment while defusing thorny disputes over history and territory.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao arrived in Japan on Wednesday in the first visit by a Chinese leader in nearly seven years, building on a groundbreaking trip by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Beijing last year to salvage seriously damaged ties.

The two, key trading partners, declared firm intentions to move forward on rebuilding relations, signing agreements on energy and the environment and issuing a joint statement that laid out a series of issues for the countries to cooperate on.

"We must build future-oriented and stable Japan-China relations," Abe said at a banquet in Wen's honor after the meeting. "We want to expand our common interests through strengthening dialogue in various fields."

Wen said he expected his three-day visit to be a success.

"We must keep up the momentum toward building friendly ties that have been forged between the governments and peoples of the two countries," he said. "Japan and China are at a crossroads where we must inherit the past while opening up the future."

Wen arrived hours after the two countries signed an accord lifting Beijing's four-year ban on Japanese rice imports. China banned imports in 2003, claiming Japanese rice did not qualify for its tightened quarantine system. (Full story)

The trip reversed a steep plunge in relations that had troubled the region and Japan's top ally, the United States. (Watch how World War II has defined China-Japan relations)

They signed a series of agreements. An environmental accord called for the two to work on a successor to the Kyoto Protocol on climate change by 2013. China's emissions are not capped under the Kyoto pact, but they are a rising concern as the economy rapidly expands.

The other agreement committed Japan and China to cooperate on developing energy resources. In the joint statement, the two vowed to seek ways to jointly develop gas deposits in disputed waters, pursue the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and work together on intellectual property rights.

The two powers also agreed to strengthen defense cooperation, setting up a visit by Chinese Defense Minister Cao Gangchuan later this year, as well as reciprocal visits by the countries' battleships. The declaration also made a veiled reference to the bitter dispute over wartime history. China still nurses resentment over Japanese invasions in the 1930s and 40s, while Japanese nationalists accuse Beijing of exaggerating accounts of atrocities for political gain.

"We resolve to face up to history and open up good, forward-looking relations toward a beautiful future," the statement said.

In an important nod to Tokyo, Beijing also offered understanding and sympathy for Japan's "humanitarian concerns" regarding North Korea -- a reference to Japan's demand for resolution of Pyongyang's kidnappings of Japanese citizens.

The Japanese were eager to stifle talk of disagreements. When asked about reports that Wen considered the visit an "ice-melting" trip, Shiozaki said: "We're not aware of any remaining ice."

The Chinese premier was scheduled to give a speech to parliament and meet with business leaders and the emperor on Thursday. He was even expected to join in a game of baseball with college students in western Japan on Friday before returning to China.

The two neighbors have good reasons to grow closer. China, including Hong Kong, is Japan's No. 1 trading partner and Japanese companies are eager for access to Chinese consumers and labor. China, meanwhile, seeks Japanese investment and technology transfers.

While the emphasis was on cooperation, both leaders broached areas of concern. Wen, for instance, warned that history could be an obstacle to improved ties if not handled well, while Abe urged China to be more transparent about its troubling surge in military spending.

Wen assured Abe that Beijing would use its armed forces only for national security, Japanese officials said.

Wen also pointed out the dispute over gas deposits in the East China Sea. The two countries have not demarcated their exclusive economic zones in the area, and Japan has objected to Chinese exploitation of the deposits, saying that some of the gas belongs to Japan. Joint talks so far have achieved little.

Wen also stopped short of declaring Beijing would support Japan's long running quest for a seat on the U.N. Security Council, only saying that China was in favor of "an important role" for Tokyo in the U.N.

Japan invaded China in the 1930s and occupied huge swaths of the country until Tokyo's 1945 defeat in World War II.

The visit represents a further easing of ties strained for several years by Abe's predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, who angered Beijing and other Asian neighbors with repeated visits to a Tokyo shrine honoring Japanese war dead, including executed war criminals. (Issues between China and Japan)

Abe, however, moved quickly to repair ties with visits to Beijing and Seoul in October, only weeks after taking office. Wen's appearance in Tokyo should set the stage for a subsequent visit by Chinese President Hu Jintao to Japan and perhaps another Abe trip to China.

The rapprochement has required some careful shelving of the two countries' deep differences.

Japanese officials, including Foreign Minister Taro Aso, have been outspoken in the past about their concerns over China's rapid increase in military spending, while Beijing has warily watched Tokyo build up military ties with the United States. But such concerns have been muted in recent months.

The history issue, meanwhile, has been safely handed off to a special panel to examine the wartime past. China has apparently decided not to make a fuss over Abe's recent comments downplaying the military's role in forcing Chinese and Korean women into sexual slavery for Imperial troops during the war.

"Clearly, the Chinese have been incredibly restrained. They are very eager for this to be a success," said Jeffrey Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University in Tokyo.

One exception is a potential visit by Abe to the Yasukuni war shrine. Japanese media in Beijing reported last week that Wen called on Abe not to visit the shrine, which China sees as a glorification of Japanese military conquests in Asia in the 1930s and 40s.

Abe has refused to say whether he would go or not, but speculation is high that he would not risk a meltdown with Beijing by praying at the shrine.

Wen's trip underscored an aspect of the Japan-China relationship that has improved despite the political difficulties: trade. His schedule includes a meeting with Japan's top business federation and a local chamber of commerce in Kyoto.

Japan's trade with China -- excluding Hong Kong -- surged 11.5 percent in 2006 to US$211 billion, the government says. Japanese exports to China rose 15.6 percent, nearly double the 8.8 percent growth in 2005. Chinese imports to Japan jumped 8.5 percent.

Mainland China was poised to become Japan's top trading partner this year, accounting for 17.2 percent of Japanese trade in 2006 -- just shy of the U.S. share of 17.4 percent, Japan's Ministry of Finance said. With Hong Kong included, China is already Japan's No. 1 trading partner.

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