Japanese ship's visit to China reflects easing tensions

Posted in China , Japan | 25-Jun-08 | Author: Howard French| Source: International Herald Tribune

The Japanese destroyer Sazanami docks at a Chinese naval port in Zhanjiang, Guangdong province, June 24, 2008.

SHANGHAI: In the first such visit since World War II, a Japanese naval warship steamed into a Chinese port Tuesday, docking at a heavily guarded naval base in Guangdong Province for a five-day port call.

The visit of the 4,650-ton destroyer Sazanami, which was billed as an earthquake relief mission, is being seen by many military and diplomatic analysts as part of a broad and gradual reconciliation between the two countries, the pace of which has quickened since a five-day visit to Japan by the Chinese president, Hu Jintao, in May.

Hu's visit was the first by a Chinese head of state in a decade and was seen by commentators in both countries as having moved Japan and China in the direction of a closer and friendlier working relationship.

Relations between the two neighbors have long been cool, in large part because of China's lingering resentment of Japan's conquest and occupation of this country between 1931 and 1945.

Hu's visit was followed almost immediately by the devastating earthquake in Sichuan Province, and Japan earned a measure of good will here by being among the first countries to provide relief assistance.

Last week, the two countries also agreed on terms for the joint development of natural gas fields in disputed territorial waters of the East China Sea.

Each step in this reconciliation has brought reminders, however, of the depth of nationalist sentiment in China and of lingering emotions in some quarters against Japan. The warship visit, for example, was originally intended to take place early this month, according to Chinese media reports, but was postponed, ostensibly for political reasons.

As it is, the visit will be unusually low key for a goodwill mission.

A Foreign Ministry spokesman, Liu Jianchao, denied that Chinese public opinion opposed the visit. "Strengthening our exchanges and cooperation in the field of defense will be supported by the people, and I don't think there will be any public anger," he said at a news conference in Beijing.

The recent agreement over the development of natural gas fields in the East China Sea, however, illustrated the continued sensitivity of political developments involving Japan.

Beijing handled the news with unusual circumspection, and as word of the agreement spread, it quickly drew expressions of outrage from many Chinese Internet commentators.

Another reminder of sensitivities here came shortly after the earthquake, at a time when China was desperate to provide shelter for the affected populations of Sichuan Province. Japan offered to fly in tents and other emergency supplies aboard a military aircraft, but China appears to have changed its mind after considering the hostile public reaction to military aircraft from Japan.