Beijing: When Japan's navy made its first Chinese port call since World War II and a Chinese charter plane ferried mainland tourists to neighbouring Taiwan this summer, they were symbols of the diplomacy that President Hu Jintao used to defuse China's dangerous rivalries.
After two years of intensive and often secretive overtures, Taiwan and Japan, two neighbours long viewed as the most likely to face a military threat from a rising China, have been drawn closer into its orbit.
Diplomatic ties: Chinese President Hu Jintao (foreground, right) and International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge (left) after the committee’s 120th general assembly in Beijing on Monday. (Photograph by Reuters/ China Daily)
Improved relations have not only reduced the chances of a flare-up that could disrupt China's turn as an Olympic host, but also helped showcase China's frequent claims to be a new kind of global power that intends to rise on the world stage without engaging in military conflict.
In setting policies towards Taiwan and Japan, especially over the past two years, Hu has reined in the more hawkish attitudes of other Chinese officials, including army generals, and kept nationalist sentiment in check. That is in contrast to the way the government has often fanned such sentiments, only to see them explode, as they did in the anti-Japanese demonstrations in 2005.
China still threatens that it will invade Taiwan if the island pursues formal independence, and it keeps hundreds of missiles aimed across the Taiwan Strait. China still claims control of islands in the East China Sea over which Japan also asserts sovereignty. But it has recently emphasized its soft power.
“Beijing has adopted a flexible, pragmatic attitude,” said Chang Jung-kung, deputy secretary general of the Kuomintang, the governing party in Taiwan, and a frequent negotiator with the mainland. “Beijing's most important concern is to not destroy the Olympics."
Hu has taken a risk in his outreach efforts, especially towards Japan. Some Chinese nationalists have criticized Hu, who visited Tokyo in May, for conceding too much to China's most reviled historical enemy.
In recent weeks, the Chinese government has limited protests over Japan's claims to the disputed islands in the East China Sea for fear that rampant nationalism could mar the Olympics.
Chinese leaders are also trying to tamp down nationalism over Taiwan. In July, Chinese officials announced they would refer to the Taiwan Olympic delegation by its official name, Zhonghua Taipei, rather than by Zhongguo Taipei, the name favoured by people on the mainland. Zhongguo Taipei implies that Taiwan is part of the mainland, and Taiwanese officials are threatening to boycott the Games if China uses it.
Despite that friction, gone are the thunderclouds of the not-so-distant past, when China and Taiwan found themselves constantly at odds. The sudden shift came after Ma Ying-jeou was elected president of Taiwan in March. Ma replaced Chen Shui-bian, who sought to expand Taiwan's de facto independence.
A turning point in the Chinese government's Taiwan policy came in 2005. In March, Hu's hardline side emerged: China passed the Anti-Secession Law, which stated in legal terms China's intent to use force against Taiwan if its government tried to declare formal independence.
But in April, Hu appeared to change course. He hosted a meeting with Lien Chan, then the chairman of the Kuomintang, the opposition party at the time. The meeting in Beijing was an attempt to undermine Chen's authority and extend an olive branch to those in Taiwan who favoured integration. It led to a series of visits by Lien and other officials in Taiwan that has allowed the Communist Party and the Kuomintang to coordinate policy.
As the 2008 elections in Taiwan drew closer, Chinese leaders slowed down economic negotiations with the Chen government so that his party would have no positive news on that front to present to voters, the party's officials say. After Ma's victory on 22 March, Chinese and Taiwanese officials quickly worked together to strengthen relations.
In China's diplomacy with Japan, Hu also took the reins. Relations reached a low point in 2005, when Junichiro Koizumi, then the Japanese Prime Minister, repeatedly visited the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which honours Japanese war dead, including some whom Chinese view as war criminals. At the same time, China and Japan were engaged in territorial disputes and Chinese protested the way wartime history was being depicted in Japanese textbooks. Violent anti-Japanese protests flared up here.
The next year, when Koizumi's chief cabinet secretary Shinzo Abe took over as prime minister, Hu was faced with a problem: Abe was considered even more conservative than Koizumi and had visited the war shrine himself, but Abe was signalling that he wanted to visit China. Here was a chance for a fresh start.
On 8 October 2006, less than two weeks after taking office, Abe met Hu in Beijing.
“The arrangement was made by a quick leadership decision: ‘If you want to come, we'll welcome you,’” said Wenran Jiang, a Japan expert and acting director of the China Institute at the University of Alberta, Canada. "The Chinese leadership took a gamble on Abe."
Improved relations helped clear the way for Yasuo Fukuda, an openly pro-China politician, to take over as prime minister in September 2007. Fukuda met with Hu in Beijing in December, and Hu reciprocated in May, in the first visit to Tokyo by a Chinese head of state in a decade.
“We can't find any document that's as bold as this in describing the bilateral relationship between China and Japan,” said Jin Linbo, a Japanese scholar at the China Institute of International Studies. “It demonstrated Hu's personal leadership in formulating and implementing China's foreign policy.”
© 2008/THE NEW YORK TIMES