New Allies in Asia?
TOKYO ― China and Japan have been reliable enemies for a thousand years. Their leaders have always been able to count on each other to stir nationalist anger and distract their followers from other problems by trading insults, threats or at times blows.
So an abnormally friendly five-day visit to Japan by Chinese President Hu Jintao causes many here to wonder what has suddenly gone right in the relationship between the two giants of Asia ― and whether it can last.
Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, the primary engineer of this Asian rapprochement, believes that it can. ``We have been able to put the past in the past," he told me shortly after Hu left the country Saturday.
The new path is possible because of ― not in spite of ― China's great economic surge as a global exporter, Fukuda explained through an interpreter in a 90-minute interview.
``We are seeing a process of China's internationalization," he said. The Chinese are now aware that ``they need to pay a lot of attention to their own behavior as they seek to obtain resources and develop markets for their products … I pointed this out as well" to Hu, Fukuda said as he read from a report of their private conversations.
Others fear that this could be a springtime cherry blossom that perishes quickly. Fukuda needs foreign policy successes to bail him out of a deepening political morass that imperils his government. China has at least a temporary interest in lowering regional tensions and public hostility toward foreigners while it prepares to host the Olympics in August.
And serious causes for tensions remain ― primarily the incompatibility of Japan's open, democratic political system with the Leninist monopoly on power exercised by China's Communist Party, and Japan's security alliance with the United States.
In the new spirit of cooperation, Fukuda disclosed that he had asked China to ``work hand in hand with us" to get Burma to accept international aid for its cyclone victims and gradually to promote ``greater stability" through political reform in that country. Hu was unresponsive, he indicated.
But Fukuda argued in detail that the growing economic interdependence between Beijing and Tokyo - China is now Japan's largest trading partner ― calls into question the political utility of keeping alive resentments and hatreds fostered by past wars and disputes.
In public, the two leaders skipped lightly past lingering quarrels, promising to resolve them but not now. In private, Fukuda raised difficult issues such as North Korea and climate change, where he reported that he won Hu's agreement to accept the principle of national targets for cutting carbon emissions.
The Japanese leader will take that advance into the Group of Eight industrial nations' summit ― which he will host in July ― and push for new climate change agreements between developed and developing countries.
A political moderate who has dramatically changed the national tone on China since he came to office in September, Fukuda visited Beijing in December.
For his part, Hu used his visit to reinforce his image as a pragmatist who pursues continued economic growth as his top priority. There was none of the insulting bombast of Jiang Zemin, the Chinese president who visited here in 1998 and cast a decade-long pall on Japanese-Chinese relations.
Japan's modest growth over the past five years has been fueled almost entirely by its exports to China. While markets elsewhere have reached saturation levels, China's appetite for Japanese finished goods and manufacturing parts is unabated. Choosing his words with care, Fukuda hinted that Japan's economic future may lie in Asia rather than in its traditional markets in Europe and the Americas.
Chinese-Japanese trade now approaches $250 billion a year. Japan has invested more than $6 billion in China and has 20,000 companies operating there. Even China's big increases in military spending do not seem to rattle Fukuda's administration.
Japan today has more to fear from social unrest and collapse in China than from armed attack, Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba says. ``We must not let China go into some level of chaos. We will do whatever we can to avoid that."
This does not mean that Japan has to accept China's terms for such a relationship. Japan's $4.3 trillion economy is still the second most powerful in the world, while China's is fourth at $2.7 trillion. Japan still has cards to play in deflecting or derailing China's march to economic dominance.
Under Fukuda, Japan has chosen to accommodate rather than to confront China, and Hu has reciprocated. That is a sensible course for the present. China can learn much from Japan's democratic, nonbelligerent experience.