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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:34 03/09/2007
Commentary (June 28, 2006)

The Ball's in Your Court, Beijing

Frank Ching (Commentator based in Hong Kong)

There are encouraging signs that both China and Japan are looking for ways to ease their prolonged deadlock. Better relations are an essential prerequisite to any strengthening of East Asian regional integration and the eventual emergence of a regional community.

The most visible sign of a thaw is the resumption of Japan's loans to China. Tokyo is offering US$660 million to be used in 10 projects, involving environmental protection, human resources and education.

Loans to China, which started in 1979, were suspended last year amid rising tensions, which saw violent anti-Japanese demonstrations in several mainland cities. Their resumption is a sign that Japan wants better relations.

But Beijing clearly considers the resumption of aid insufficient to mend relations. Mainland spokesmen continue to call on Japan to "take sincere and concrete actions for the improvement and development of China-Japan relations". Presumably, this means a public declaration that Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi will stop visiting the Yasukuni Shrine.

But while Beijing officials still refuse to talk to Mr Koizumi, a meeting of foreign ministers was held in Doha last month on the margins of an Asian Co-operation Dialogue gathering. It was the first such Beijing-Tokyo meeting in a year.

The Japanese side wants more talks next month, when the two foreign ministers will be in Kuala Lumpur for the Asean Regional Forum. So far, however, Beijing is playing hard to get.

But if China is serious about wanting to improve relations, it should show that it is just as anxious as Japan to hold talks at the highest political level acceptable to both sides. The two countries made considerable progress at Doha, agreeing to resume the security dialogue and to move faster to resolve differences over gas deposits under the East China Sea. Beijing should keep up the momentum, taking advantage of next month's meeting in Kuala Lumpur of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum for more ministerial discussions.

Japan has made it clear that it is willing to meet China at any place and time. In the eyes of the international community, it is China that is dragging its feet.

Moreover, while Beijing is calling on Tokyo to take steps to improve the relationship, there are also things that China can and should do.

Japan's negative image on the mainland is to a large extent a product of Beijing's propaganda over the years - which has emphasised the Communist Party's role in resisting Japanese aggression in the 1930s and 1940s.

Further, Beijing has given Japan little credit for its large-scale economic aid for more than a quarter of a century. The controlled press has not published this information, so the vast majority of mainlanders don't know about Japan's help to China - especially when the country neared bankruptcy as it emerged from the Cultural Revolution.

Only now are mainland scholars beginning to speak up about the one-sidedness of Chinese propaganda. Tao Wenzhao, of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, has suggested that Beijing should "recognise Japan's contributions to China's economic construction". He noted that Japan was the first country to lift economic sanctions imposed on China after the Tiananmen Square massacre.

Since the party controls the press, it should be entirely possible for Beijing to change gradually its propaganda line on Japan. China, which has excoriated Japan for its distortions of history, should try to present a balanced picture of Japan rather than committing its own distortions.

If Beijing does take such actions, then the chances are good that the relationship will improve radically.

(Originally appeared in the June 28, 2006 issue of South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, reproduced here with permission.)

Copyright © Japanese Institute of Global Communications