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Wen Jiabao's Ice-Melting Visit to Japan

Dr. Abanti Bhattacharya is Associate Professor at the Department of East Asian Studies, University of Delhi. Prior to this she was Associate Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.
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  • April 25, 2007

    Wen Jiabao's three-day visit to Japan starting on April 11, 2007 was the first visit by a Chinese Premier in seven years. It has been hailed as an 'ice-melting' visit, distinguishing it from the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's 'ice-breaking' visit to China in October 2006. Though the visit did not bring about any fundamental change in Sino-Japanese relations, it did strike a new chord by enabling the relationship to be viewed from a strategic and long-term perspective. For the first time, a visit did not focus squarely on the history issue. Rather its aim was to flesh out the contents of the strategically and mutually beneficial relationship that was agreed upon by the two sides in the October 2006 meeting.

    The history issue had overshadowed Sino-Japanese relations in the last few decades. While China had relegated its historical animosities with most countries to the backburner and instead gave preference to economics over politics, with Japan it has tended to consider history as the key issue. But this visit for the first time downgraded the history factor and emphasised upon economic, energy, and environmental issues. In his speech to the Japanese Diet, the first by a high-level Chinese dignitary in 22 years, Wen Jiabao briefly touched upon the history issue and said, "We believe that we need to take history as a mirror to guide the growth of our ties in the future. By stressing the importance of drawing lessons from history, we do not mean to perpetuate hatred. Rather we want to secure a better future for our relations." His speech was particularly encouraging as there was no mention of the Yasukuni Shrine. Some media reports suggested that this change in China's foreign policy approach was cosmetic and primarily driven by the forthcoming Olympic Games scheduled to be held in Beijing in 2008. Though the history factor would continue to hold considerable importance in Sino-Japanese relations, the visit does indicate China's forward looking and pragmatic foreign policy approach.

    This pragmatism was visible in the five principles that Wen laid out in his Diet speech to build lasting Sino-Japanese relations. The first of these five principles was the need to increase mutual trust and honour commitments. In this context, Wen mentioned the Taiwan issue and sought Japan's co-operation and prudence on China's core national issue. The second principle related to seeking common ground while shelving differences and upholding the larger interests of the two countries. In this regard, Wen mentioned the issue of the East China Sea dispute, to tackle which the two countries should follow the principle of shelving differences and seek joint development so as to make it a Sea of peace, friendship and co-operation. Thirdly, he identified the promotion of common development based on equality and mutual benefit. Wen mentioned that economic development of both countries presents opportunities rather than posing threats to the other. The visit, in fact, resulted in the upgradation of bilateral economic co-operation by launching China-Japan high-level economic dialogue mechanisms. The two countries agreed to co-operate in energy, environmental protection, banking, new and high technology, information and communication and protection of intellectual property rights. Fourthly, Wen proposed the strengthening of exchanges with an eye on the future, including both mutual exchanges and mutual visits. He highlighted the fact that over 4.8 million mutual visits were made in 2006. Fifthly, he postulated close consultation to respond to challenges. Both countries agreed to maintain close co-ordination and uphold peace and stability in Northeast Asia and promote East Asia regional co-operation.

    The basic content of the strategically and mutually beneficial relationship was further clearly outlined in the Japan-China Joint Press Statement signed on April 11. The eight-point Joint Statement emphasised on three broad issues - mutual exchanges, mutual co-operation, and regional and international co-operation. Mutual exchanges included the important area of defence, and the two sides decided to establish a communication mechanism between the two defence authorities in order to prevent the occurrence of unforeseen incidents at sea. Mutual co-operation included co-operation in energy and environmental protection and for the first time the two sides decided upon holding the First Energy Ministerial Policy Dialogue and the announcement of a joint statement concerning the enhancement of energy co-operation. On regional and international co-operation, both sides agreed to support United Nations reforms, co-operate on the Six-Party Talks and, most important of all, they decided to conduct joint development of East China Sea as a provisional framework until the final delimitation based on principles of mutual benefit are settled.

    The joint statement however, did not lead to any concrete results on military and strategic issues. Though the proposal for joint handling of the East China Sea dispute was a welcome and significant step forward, it did not settle the row over drilling rights for natural gas deposits. Further, the statement did not spell out China's position on the crucial issue of Japan's Security Council membership and, therefore, the former's opposition to the latter's permanent membership will remain a thorny element in bilateral relations. Japan also remains apprehensive on the issue of Beijing's military build-up and lack of transparency on military spending. For its part, China is concerned about Japan's robust defence policy, deepening US-Japan alliance and growing Tokyo-Canberra military exchanges. More importantly, though the history question did not occupy the centre stage, it is far from resolved. There are significant sections in China who are not supportive of the moderate policies of Hu-Wen towards Japan and hold history to be the key issue between the two sides. In any future solution to the territorial disputes, the history factor is likely to emerge as a key contending area inhibiting improvement in bilateral relations.

    Nonetheless, it appears from the Joint Statement that the key achievement of Wen's visit lay in the fact that history no longer occupies the key focus in Sino-Japanese relations. Economics have taken primacy over politics and, as hailed in the statement, stability and common development of the two countries are seen as prerequisites for both to rise peacefully. Further, co-operation on the East China Sea dispute and defence exchanges suggest upgradation of Sino-Japanese relations to the level of trust and mutual co-operation. All these indicate support for Wen Jiabao's exhortation that Sino-Japanese relations must be viewed from a strategic and long-term perspective.

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