By Allen T. Cheng, Bloomberg
Beijing: Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visits Japan this week on a trip mired in disputes over natural gas rights in the East China Sea and Japan’s use of sex slaves during World War II.
Wen, 64, makes his first visit to Tokyo as premier from 11-13 April , reciprocating a trip by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Beijing in October. Asia’s two biggest economies have booming trade relations and are allies in the effort to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program.
Wen shortened his trip after Abe’s denials that Japan’s military forced Asian women to work in brothels 70 years ago. The comments drew protests from China and South Korea, countries Abe visited soon after taking office to smooth relations damaged by predecessor Junichiro Koizumi’s trips to Tokyo’s Yasukuni shrine, where war criminals are among those memorialized.
“What the Chinese want is for the Japanese to just shut up about the comfort women and Yasukuni,” said Phil Deans, a professor at Temple University in Tokyo specializing in Japan- China relations. “Japan needs China’s help on North Korea. The Chinese side knows how dependent it is on Japanese investment.”
Abe and Wen will sign an agreement to build “mutual respect,” Kyodo News reported on April 5, citing unidentified officials from both countries. The two leaders will discuss the environment and climate change issues, Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki said at a regular press conference in Tokyo.
Wen also will make a one-day stop tomorrow in South Korea, where he will meet with South Korean President Roh Moo-Hyun.
‘A Historical Fact’
Abe, 52, has said that his remarks on the wartime sex slaves weren’t accurately conveyed and that he supports a 1993 government apology to the women.
“Premier Wen originally wanted to visit Japan for five days,” said Guan Anping, a Beijing lawyer and former legal adviser to Vice Premier Wu Yi. “He cut the trip back and added a visit to South Korea, which still hates Japan for the ‘comfort women’ issue. It’s a warning to Japan: we don’t like your denial of a historical fact.”
Wen is likely to press Abe not to visit Yasukuni. Numerous visits by Japanese leaders to the shrine “hurt the feelings” of the Chinese people, Wen told Japanese reporters last week, adding he hopes this will “never happen again,” Kyodo reported.
Both China and Japan have too much to lose to allow historical disputes to hurt relations, analysts on both side say.
“China is developing peacefully and needs peaceful neighbourly relations,” said Fang Ning, deputy director of the Institute of Political Science at Beijing’s Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “In Northeast Asia, building good relations with Japan is very, very important.”
Including Hong Kong, China is Japan’s No. 1 trading partner with total trade exceeding $249 billion last year, up from $64 billion in 1997, according to the Japan External Trade Organization, known as Jetro.
Japanese companies have invested $53 billion in China, second only to Hong Kong, according to the agency. Japan is now China’s third largest trade partner, after the EU and U.S.
“Relations between Japan and China are becoming deeper and deeper,” said Yoichi Maie, deputy director-general of Jetro’s Beijing office. “Trade will continue to rise steadily.”
Japanese companies operating in China derive 50% of their revenue from domestic sales, 30% from exports to Japan and 20 % from exports to other nations, he said.
“Things have certainly gotten better since when Prime Minister Koizumi was in power,” said Kenneth Lieberthal, former senior director for Asia at the U.S. National Security Council, and a professor at the University of Michigan. “Still, you don’t see many indications beyond carefully constructed bilateral efforts to show that things are getting better.”
China Defense Spending
Abe signed a security agreement with Australian Prime Minister John Howard in March, a sign that Japan is wary of getting too close to China, Lieberthal said. Abe has expressed concern over China’s rising defense spending, which will grow 17.8% this year to 350 billion yuan ($45 billion).
The two countries also are deadlocked over the right to explore gas fields in the East China Sea. Negotiators from both sides have met half a dozen times without an agreement.
“When it comes to East China Sea energy development, I don’t think there will be substantial progress in his visit,” said Norihiro Sasaki, a China specialist the Institute of Developing Economies, which is affiliated with Japan’s trade ministry. “Mr. Abe will also mention China’s defense budget as Japan is concerned about it.”
Speech to Parliament
In addition to meeting Abe, Wen will give a speech to Japan’s parliament, the third Chinese leader do so, and will tour the ancient capital of Kyoto. He will speak to the Diet the morning of 12 April, Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Seiji Suzuki told reporters today in Tokyo.
Ahead of the summit, the two leaders sounded optimistic about improving relations.
“I expect to achieve an understanding with Prime Minister Abe to form a China-Japan strategic relationship that extends beyond economic cooperation to increasing exchanges in scientific, education and cultural exchanges,” Wen said during a briefing last month on the closing of China’s congress.
“Our cooperation based on active discussions will lead to peace and prosperity in the region,” Abe said at a 27 March press conference. “I’m sure China shares the same view.”