- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 2, 2004

TOKYO — Despite a thriving economic partnership, political ties between Japan and China are at their lowest ebb in years. The two countries are locked in disputes over World War II history, natural gas exploration and, now, a bold incursion by a Chinese nuclear submarine.

The troubles have blocked a meeting between the countries’ top leaders since 2001, complicated northeast Asia’s scramble to meet its growing energy needs, and threatened to limit the growth of bilateral business ties.

The startling intrusion by a Chinese nuclear submarine into Japanese waters last month introduced a disturbing military aspect to the tensions between East Asia’s two leading powers, adding urgency to calls for repairing relations.

“We should hold talks because we have problems. We are making arrangements,” Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said Nov. 16 when asked whether he was trying to schedule a meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao at the Nov. 20-21 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Santiago, Chile. [The two did meet on the sidelines at Santiago, and Mr. Hu reportedly gave Mr. Koizumi a lecture.]

The turmoil is a marked contrast to flourishing business relations. Bilateral trade hit a record $130 billion in 2003, a 30.3 percent increase from the previous year, and officials expect another record this year.

Political ties, however, have long been rocky between China, the world’s most populous nation, and Japan, Asia’s biggest economy.

Japan’s military conquest of China in the 1930s and ‘40s and what the Chinese see as Tokyo’s reluctance to atone for its aggression have gnawed for decades at Chinese sensitivities. Japan, in turn, accuses Beijing of using history to browbeat Tokyo into providing aid and political concessions.

The countries also have squabbled over territory and natural resources. Both, for instance, claim a cluster of islands controlled by Japan in the East China Sea, called the Senkakus in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese.

The two also are sparring over Chinese exploration of natural gas fields near Okinawa that Japan says could infringe on its exclusive economic zone, and they have competing plans for an oil pipeline from Siberia to East Asia.

The flare-ups illustrate an increasingly competitive relationship.

China’s spectacular economic performance has turned it into a global growth engine, and Beijing is eagerly converting that power into diplomatic influence, especially among Southeast Asian countries that Japan had long considered its back yard.

Tokyo nurses fears of being eclipsed, and has eyed with suspicion Beijing’s military spending and diplomatic maneuvering. Japan’s influential rightists strongly favor responding with a more robust and assertive military.

“In the political arena, conservatives aren’t really trying to get along with China,” said Makoto Iokibe, a political scientist at Kobe University. “People who want to be tough with China feel as if we were about to go to war when something like this — the submarine, or gas development issues — happens.”

Although the submarine incursion did not turn violent, it has come to symbolize the escalating bilateral friction in recent years.

The sub was spotted in Japanese territorial waters among islands between Okinawa and Taiwan on Nov. 10, putting Japan’s military on alert and prompting the navy to initiate a maritime policing operation — only the second time such an order has been issued in 50 years.

The submarine refused to identify itself, and Japan tracked it for days until announcing that it was Chinese. Tokyo immediately protested to Beijing. Japanese officials said Nov. 16 that China had confirmed the sub’s identity, said the incursion was an accident and expressed regret, but Chinese officials refused to confirm that.

The intrusion prompted calls in Tokyo for greater military vigilance, and joined a long list of incidents that have soured the atmosphere between the two countries.

Mr. Koizumi has angered China repeatedly since 2001, when he began making annual visits to Yasukuni Shrine, a memorial to Japan’s military dead since the imperial restoration in 1868, that Beijing and other critics deride as a glorification of Tokyo’s military aggressions.

China has responded with a virtual block on bilateral summits and has called for an end to Mr. Koizumi’s visits to the shrine as a prelude to warmer ties.

China reportedly scuttled a meeting between Mr. Koizumi and Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao at an international gathering in Vietnam in October.

The anger overflowed dramatically in August, when rowdy Chinese fans booed, spat upon and burned Japanese flags when the Japanese soccer team visited for the Asian Cup tournament.

The frayed bilateral relations have raised concerns throughout East Asia. Some say the economic links, robust as they are, would bloom more fully without the tensions. Japan is competing with Europeans and others for business in China, and there is concern that the friction puts the Japanese at a disadvantage.

“Economic cooperation is happening,” Mr. Iokibe said. “But if the political ties became better, China might be able to cooperate on major projects, such as buying Japanese bullet trains.”

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