Premier Wen hopes to 'melt ice' in Japan

By Edward Cody (Washington Post Foreign Service)
Updated: 2007-04-11 09:48

In what he called a mission to "melt the ice," Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao opens a long-delayed visit to Japan on Wednesday to demonstrate China's new willingness to play down historic and strategic differences in favor of stable relations between Asia's two major powers.

Officials said Wen and his Japanese counterpart, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, will preside over the establishment of a high-level economic dialogue to better manage a fast-growing trade relationship that surpassed $200 billion in 2006 and is vital to the economies of both their nations. In addition, the two leaders will sign a document outlining what Wen said would be "a new era of China-Japan relations."

But the main significance of the two-day visit is that it is occurring at all after several years of estrangement and tension between Beijing and Tokyo. Officials from both governments underlined the importance they attach to sweetening the atmosphere. Asia's two major economies have to interact smoothly, they said, and the risks are high if relations are colored by mistrust and enmity.

"I really feel my trip has a mission," Wen told Japanese reporters in Beijing on the eve of his visit. "China-Japan relations are at a critical stage, and both countries should make an effort to push forward ties."

Wen's visit was orchestrated to symbolize amity; having him show a friendly face to the Japanese public, officials hope, might allay fears that China's growing power poses a threat. The Chinese premier was scheduled to visit with Emperor Akihito, address the Japanese parliament and dine with businessmen. He also planned to visit a farm near Kyoto and told Japanese reporters he might play a few innings of baseball with Japanese university students.

With bitter memories of Japanese atrocities here during World War II, China had distanced itself from Japan during the rule of Abe's predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi. In particular, the Beijing government vehemently protested Koizumi's repeated visits to Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which honors Japanese military dead, including a number of officers classified as war criminals.

China and Japan have also quarreled over drilling for petroleum in disputed areas of the East China Sea and over Abe's contention last month that there was no proof that the Japanese military had coerced women into sexual slavery during World War II.

Despite his reputation as a nationalist, however, Abe has avoided Yasukuni since taking office in the fall, signaling a determination to clear the air. He also made Beijing a stop on his first official visit abroad last October, when he conveyed what Chinese interpreted as assurances that he would stay away from the shrine.

Since then, President Hu Jintao's government has changed its tone and emphasized willingness to respond to Japan's overtures despite the enduring differences. But it has made clear that avoidance of Yasukuni will be the main criterion for maintaining the new attitude.

"Individual Japanese leaders have visited [the shrine] numerous times and hurt the feelings of the Chinese people, greatly affecting China-Japan relations," Wen said in his interview with Japanese reporters. "I hope this will never happen again."

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