An attempt at rapprochement

Print edition : May 20, 2005

JAPAN'S apology for its imperial aggression and war crimes, solemnly offered at the Asian-African Summit at Jakarta on April 22, lifted the clouds of doubt that hung over the main business of the meeting - the formulation of a new strategic partnership between the two continents.

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi (left) and Chinese President Hu Jintao at their meeting in Jakarta.-REUTERS

Not only that. The move by Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi paved the way for an important meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao the following day. The direct parleys, held at Koizumi's request, helped set some new markers for bilateral relations, in the context of the groundswell of anger among the Chinese people (and also the Koreans) over the recent approval by the Japanese government of a history textbook for schoolchildren.

It was not immediately clear from Koizumi's apology whether Tokyo would withdraw the textbook, which offended the sentiments of the Chinese for having "whitewashed" imperial Japan's gross violations of human rights before and during the Second World War. However, the worldwide impact of the apology enabled Hu Jintao to indicate a certain willingness to work for better ties with Japan - albeit on certain conditions.

What, then, was the nature and sweep of the apology? Koizumi said: "Fifty years ago, [post-imperial] Japan stood before the Asian and African nations assembled at Bandung to declare its determination to develop itself as a peaceful nation. That spirit of 50 years ago remains steadfast to this day. In the past, Japan, through its colonial rule and aggression, caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries, particularly to those of Asian nations. Japan squarely faces these facts of history in a spirit of humility." He affirmed that Japan would remain an economic power, a status attained after the Second World War, without turning itself into a military power. Koizumi indicated that his pledge would be underwritten by the fact that the "feelings of deep remorse and heartfelt apology" would always remain "engraved in [the] mind" of the Japanese people.

While the apology was modelled on some of the previous renditions by Japanese leaders, most notably the one delivered 10 years ago, Tokyo indicated that the latest one was decided upon before the new tensions with China erupted. And what really became acceptable to Beijing was Koizumi's delivering of the pledge, amid the current bilateral tensions, at an international gathering.

In the event, Hu Jintao outlined a five-point initiative which in his view could help China and Japan turn the corner if the latter were to abide by it. The five points were: Japan should uphold all the documents that the two had signed in order to normalise their ties over 30 years ago; it should translate its sense of stated remorse into actual deeds of atonement; Japanese leaders should abide by their commitments to uphold the One-China principle (in spite of the United States-Japan strategic understanding on Taiwan); the two countries should endeavour to resolve all issues through dialogue and peaceful negotiations; and, finally, both should further strengthen communications and cooperation in various bilateral spheres.

The Hu-Koizumi meeting took place not only in the immediate context of Japan's apology, but also in the wake of its move to grant rights to some Japanese firms to carry out exploratory drilling for oil and natural gas in the disputed waters of the East China Sea. More irritably, from a Chinese perspective, almost 80 Japanese legislators, including some belonging to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, visited the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, widely regarded in Asia as a symbol of Japanese militarism of the past, on the same day as the Hu-Koizumi meeting.

On the oil and gas issue, Japan insists that China must account for its own moves along the disputed waters. Beijing has called for talks disputing Tokyo's formula that a median line should determine the respective economic zones in the East China Sea region. On the issue of visits to the Yasukuni Shrine by Koizumi and other Japanese politicians, China wants an end to such provocations. But Tokyo still tends to regard such visits as matters within the social and sovereign jurisdiction of Japan.

If, in these circumstances, Hu has expressed the hope that his latest talks with Koizumi could still help evolve a new road map for bilateral ties, the reason has to do with China's overall world view on issues of larger concern at this point in time. China, as Xia Liping of the Shanghai Institute for International Studies noted recently, is conscious of the need to establish "a strategic-stability framework" involving major powers for the present century. It now remains to be seen whether China will count Japan among the major powers for this exercise.

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