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Editorial: Change in Japan
(China Daily)
Updated: 2009-08-31 08:18

The widely expected win of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) in the parliamentary election is an event of great significance.

For it would not only end more than 50 years of almost unbroken rule by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), but also herald more promising prospects for the long-term development of Sino-Japanese relations.

The relationship between the world's second and third largest economies was frayed from time to time by the sensitive "history issue", which refers to Japan's attitude toward its wartime past of aggression. Though Japanese leaders have on different occasions expressed remorse and apologized for the immense misery Japan had inflicted on the Chinese people, no apology in written form has ever been offered to China, which casts doubt over Tokyo's sincerity.

Bilateral ties have witnessed an upward momentum since 2006, which culminated last year in the unprecedented frequency of exchange of visits, when Chinese President Hu Jintao visited Japan twice, and Japan's two prime ministers set foot on China.

The improved relationship has been achieved only after Japanese leaders - unlike former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi from 2001 to 2006 - refrained from paying homage at Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine, which includes World War II war criminals among the honored dead. This illustrates the weight of the history issue on China-Japan relations.

DPJ leader Yukio Hatoyama, who is poised to take office, has announced that he will not visit the war shrine, seen by the Asian neighbors as a sign of Japan's militaristic past. This is a welcome promise, which has given rise to hope that the history issue, for the first time, will not remain a core issue in Sino-Japanese relations.

Yet this development does not guarantee smooth sailing for bilateral ties. Other issues ranging from the Diaoyu Islands to Japanese rightists' support for separatist forces in Tibet and Xinjiang - if not handled properly - could easily crop up and rupture the hard-won improvement in ties.

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Tokyo has so far insisted that the Japan-US security treaty is applicable to China's Diaoyu Islands. It has also considered Taiwan within its "surrounding areas" in which military action might be deemed lawful under the country's pacifist constitution. The tough stance hurts mutual trust and runs counter to the spirit of a 1978 joint treaty vowing to "solve all disputes through peaceful means".

Any expectation of a drastic change in Japan's foreign policy would be unrealistic. The above-mentioned issues may continue to haunt China-Japan relations, and it requires great political wisdom on the part of leaders of both nations to prevent those issues from derailing bilateral ties.

Yukio Hatoyama told voters Sunday that the election would change Japanese history. He also has a chance to markedly advance China-Japan relations.

With relations across the Taiwan Straits improving, the new Japanese administration should clarify that Taiwan is not included in its sphere of "surrounding areas". This will help dispel mutual distrust, ease the security concern of both China and Japan and open a new chapter in the bilateral strategic relations of mutual benefit.