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Hu’s Visit to Japan

Gunjan Singh is Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • May 28, 2008

    Sino-Japanese relations were in the doldrums for the past decade because of the repeated visits to the Yasukuni Shrine by former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. One consequence was a complete freeze in mutual visits at the highest political levels between 2001 and 2006. Even exchanges at other levels were affected. The ice was broken in 2006 when Japanese Prime Minster Shinzo Abe visited China, and the ice began to thaw when Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visited Japan in 2007. These two Prime Ministerial visits set the stage for President Hu Jintao’s ‘warm-spring’ visit to Japan between May 6 and 11, 2008.

    Hu’s five day visit is his longest foreign tour since assuming power in 2003, which clearly shows how important Japan is for China today. The primary aim of the visit was to stabilise relations. The previous Chinese presidential visit to Japan was by Jiang Zemin in 1998 and it was not that conclusive given his refusal to accept Japanese apology for war time atrocities. During Hu’s trip, however, the controversial aspects over history were left on the back burner. The visit has been termed a “complete success” by the Chinese foreign ministry, clearly highlighting the importance China is attaching to regional and bilateral co-operation.

    On his arrival in Tokyo on May 6, Hu issued a written statement at the airport in which he asserted that both countries are important Asian powers and that the “long-term stable and good neighbourly friendship between China and Japan is in the fundamental interests of the two countries and the two peoples.” Though the visit was aimed at restoring bilateral ties, the unrest in Tibet and the incident of poisonous Chinese dumplings that left a number of Japanese ill had already cast its shadow.

    When the Chinese President arrived, there were almost 200 people chanting anti-Chinese slogans and demonstrating their support for the Tibetan movement. Earlier, when the Olympic Torch passed through Japan, it was greeted by hundreds of protesters ranging from Buddhist monks and pro-Tibetan demonstrators to Japanese nationalists waving the old imperial flag. Though Tibet has been an issue between the two countries for a long time now, Japan stated during Hu’s visit that it finds it encouraging that China is holding a dialogue with the envoys of the Dalai Lama. For his part, Hu asserted that Beijing will continue these talks with the Dalai Lama’s representatives.

    Though political relations have remained frozen during the last several years, bilateral economic ties have flourished greatly. China was Japan’s third largest trading partner in 2007, while Japan was China’s top trading partner in the same year. Two-way trade amounted to US $236 billion. Japan’s accumulated Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in China has reached $60.7 billion, making it China’s second largest source of FDI. Efforts were made in 2007 to improve people-to-people contacts with the two countries sponsoring a two-way tourism exchange programme involving 30,000 people to mark the 35th anniversary of the normalisation of relations. As a result, there was a significant increase in the total number of Chinese and Japanese visitors to each other’s country. 2008 has been set as the year of friendly exchanges between the youths of the two countries. Hu personally extended Olympic invitations to Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda as well as to his predecessors Shinzo Abe and Yoshiro Koizumi. Hu also met Emperor Akihito. China is trying to use the 2008 Olympics in the same way that Japan had used the 1964 Games to proclaim its arrival on the world stage.

    Hu’s visit also came right before the Six-Party Talks were about to start at the end of May 2008. During the visit, the two countries asserted that they will work towards the de-nuclearisation of North Korea. China and South Korea have almost normalised their relations, thus strengthening regional cooperation to a large extent. If Japan and China also move towards a cordial relationship, it would greatly help in fashioning a co-ordinated approach towards North Korea.

    At a keynote speech on the future of Japan-China relations that Hu delivered at Tokyo's Waseda University, he emphasised the importance of youth exchanges to improve popular opinion, which remains quite troubled in both countries.

    Hu and Fukuda signed a joint statement on greenhouse gases and energy conservation, which is expected to include some form of Chinese endorsement for Japan's ambition to spearhead a global agreement to halve global carbon emissions by 2050. They also proposed working towards resolving a dispute over rights to gas beneath the East China Sea and make it a peaceful zone. The China-Japan Joint Statement on Advancing the Strategic Relationship of Mutual Benefit was issued on May 7. This is the fourth political document the two countries have signed. The previous ones are the China-Japan Joint Communiqué of 1972, the China-Japan Treaty of Peace and Friendship of 1978 and the China-Japan Joint Declaration of 1998. The May 7 Statement highlighted the fact that both countries respect each other’s peaceful development. During Hu’s visit the two sides also agreed to push forward full co-operation in finance, information, trade, investments, small and medium-sized enterprises and intellectual property protection.

    Hu’s visit clearly shows that that there is a certain urgency on the Chinese side to have a peaceful and stable region. Due to the current internal instability and turmoil and an upsurge in the level of international criticism, China is looking for friends in the neighbourhood. The Tibetan uprising and the Earthquake in the Sichuan Province have clearly stretched Chinese resources to the maximum. Against this backdrop, the assistance offered by Japan with respect to satellite imagery for damage assessment clearly has come as a welcome boon. Given Japans’ role as a key player in East Asia, its closeness to the United States, and the linkages between the Chinese and Japanese economies, Hu’s visit was an attempt to reach out to an important neighbour and boost China’s image as a responsible player in the region.