Success in the Offing for Hu Jintao’s Tokyo Visit

It is suddenly looking likely that solid achievement could result from the Hu Jintao-Yasuo Fukuda summit in Tokyo, although it has little to do with the fundamentals of China-Japan relations. Both leaders need the bump that success would bring, if for different reasons.

While the frosty ties are a thing of the past that dominated during much of the administration of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi – who insisted on annual visits to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine where Japanese war criminals are buried -- the two Asian giants are still rattled by territorial disputes, the “questions of history” and the perennial fight over who is Asia’s top dog. Most recently, poison-laced Chinese dumplings on sale in supermarkets all over Japan highlighted yet another version of the “China threat” among the Japanese public.

Nonetheless, possibilities for a breakthrough in Sino-Japanese relations have significantly increased over the past month due to setbacks the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) administration has suffered because of its suppression of rioting protesters in Tibet – and its monumental mishandling of Olympics-related propaganda. Leaders of major Western countries have threatened to boycott the opening ceremony of the Summer Games. And the outburst of nationalistic if not xenophobic sentiments by Chinese in more than 20 countries has thrown into the spotlight the regime’s hostility against many aspects of globalization.

Chinese officials and the official media have over the past few weeks come up with a series of upbeat assessments of the Hu-Fukuda talks. While meeting Beijing-based Japanese correspondents on Sunday, Hu said he was confident of a "warm spring for the friendship between the two peoples.” The president indicated that he is keen to “enhance mutual trust, friendship and cooperation, make progress for the future, and comprehensively push forward bilateral strategic and reciprocal relations.”

Hu added that the “strategic relationship of mutual benefit” between both countries would be consolidated. Concerning sovereignty disputes over the East China Sea – which is said to straddle huge hoards of natural gas – Hu exuded confidence that both sides could find mutually agreeable methods to “adequate resolve the issue.”

Diplomatic analysts in Beijing and Tokyo have noted that Hu steered clear of the “question of history,” shorthand for demands that the Japanese leadership stop offending “the feelings of the Chinese people” through means such as embellishing the atrocities of the Japanese Imperial Army. Instead, senior Chinese officials and commentators have focused on the positive elements in bilateral links.

The official China News Service quoted veteran diplomat Wang Taiping as saying that 2008 would be a “leap-forward development year” for bilateral ties. Wang described Hu’s trip as a “journey full of the promise of spring.” He added the top leader would send his hosts this important message: “China will bring something good to Japan, become Japan’s partner, and acknowledge and handle Sino-Japanese relations from a strategic high point.”

Former Chinese ambassador to Tokyo Xu Dunxin told the Chinese media that bilateral ties were gravitating toward an upward, benevolent cycle. He said he did not think a drastic deterioration would happen even if another “hawkish” politician like Koizumi were to become LDP leader. “What made possible the ‘ice-cold period’ during the Koizumi era was the product of particular personalities under particular historical circumstances,” he said.

Political analysts close to the talks say negotiators from both sides were close to hitting on a “profit-sharing formula” for gas that will be extracted from under the East China Sea by a joint-venture company representing both countries. They added that President Hu, who appears likely to promise to give Japan one more panda, is keen to have the Japanese leadership reiterate its stance on the “one China policy.”

On the Japanese side, items on Tokyo’s wish list include seeking Chinese support for the country’s securing a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Host Fukuda also has reasons aplenty to make the Japan-China summit a success. Since taking over from the hapless Shinzo Abe last year, Fukuda’s popularity ratings have plummeted to 20 percent, a record low for a Japan head of government. A successful meeting with the leader of a country that is the biggest buyer of Japanese exports could go some way toward strengthening Fukuda’s domestic standing.

After all, Abe visited Beijing within 10 days of his taking over from Koizumi in September 2006 – and his “ice-breaking China trip” has since been deemed the high point of his lackluster and short-lived administration.