New Allies In Asia?

By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, May 11, 2008

TOKYO -- China and Japan have been reliable enemies for a thousand years. Their leaders have always been able to count on each other to stir nationalist anger and distract their followers from other problems by trading insults, threats or at times blows.

So an abnormally friendly five-day visit to Japan by Chinese President Hu Jintao causes many here to wonder what has suddenly gone right in the relationship between the two giants of Asia -- and whether it can last.

Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, the primary engineer of this Asian rapprochement, believes that it can. "We have been able to put the past in the past," he told me shortly after Hu left the country yesterday.

The new path is possible because of -- not in spite of -- China's great economic surge as a global exporter, Fukuda explained through an interpreter in a 90-minute interview.

"We are seeing a process of China's internationalization," he said. The Chinese are now aware that "they need to pay a lot of attention to their own behavior as they seek to obtain resources and develop markets for their products. . . . I pointed this out as well" to Hu, Fukuda said as he read from a report of their private conversations.

Others fear that this could be a springtime cherry blossom that perishes quickly. Fukuda needs foreign policy successes to bail him out of a deepening political morass that imperils his government. China has at least a temporary interest in lowering regional tensions and public hostility toward foreigners while it prepares to host the Olympics in August.

And serious causes for tensions remain -- primarily the incompatibility of Japan's open, democratic political system with the Leninist monopoly on power exercised by China's Communist Party, and Japan's security alliance with the United States.

In the new spirit of cooperation, Fukuda disclosed that he had asked China to "work hand in hand with us" to get Burma to accept international aid for its cyclone victims and gradually to promote "greater stability" through political reform in that country. Hu was unresponsive, he indicated.

But Fukuda argued in detail that the growing economic interdependence between Beijing and Tokyo -- China is now Japan's largest trading partner -- calls into question the political utility of keeping alive resentments and hatreds fostered by past wars and disputes.

In public, the two leaders skipped lightly past lingering quarrels, promising to resolve them but not now. In private, Fukuda raised difficult issues such as North Korea and climate change, where he reported that he won Hu's agreement to accept the principle of national targets for cutting carbon emissions.

The Japanese leader will take that advance into the Group of Eight industrial nations' summit -- which he will host in July -- and push for new climate change agreements between developed and developing countries.

A political moderate who has dramatically changed the national tone on China since he came to office in September, Fukuda visited Beijing in December.


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