Thursday, July 17, 2008

— China and Japan have done the unthinkable: For the first time since the end of World War II, a Japanese warship docked in a Chinese port on June 24 and stayed there until June 28.

Several hundred Chinese sailors welcomed the destroyer Sazanami by holding up signs with slogans and chanting praises for bilateral relations, as ordered by their commanders.

The Sazanami’s visit was in exchange for a port call made by the Chinese missile destroyer Shenzhen to Tokyo in November, the first port call by a Chinese warship in Japan since 1891.

Will the two Big Dragons make up and be friends after all? Not so fast.

The exchange of visits by warships can be viewed as proof of improving relations between the two countries resulting from a meeting in early May in Tokyo between Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda and Chinese President Hu Jintao.

Importantly, China agreed to welcome the warship of a potential adversary barely a month after it refused to allow Japanese U.S.-built Lockheed Martin C-130 Hercules military transports carrying relief aid for the victims of the devastating May 12 earthquake in Guangzhou to land in the province.

Is this a good sign? Japanese officials say the visit is the first positive development after many years of misunderstanding.

It will “help enhance the friendship and mutual trust between the two countries,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao has said.

However, the Japanese Defense Department is displeased with some aspects of the visit, which is understandable since details and gestures have always been important in the Far East.

First, this concerns the choice of a place. The Japanese destroyer docked at the port of Zhanjiang in China’s southern Guangdong province, to the west of Hong Kong. Why didn’t China allow the destroyer to dock close to Beijing, if the Chinese missile cruiser was allowed to call at the Tokyo port? Japan assumes China is not playing fair.

Another point of discord is the Japanese relief aid to the victims of the Guangzhou earthquake. The Japanese navy has always helped victims of natural disasters. In February 2001, the destroyer Amagiri, which went to India for India’s 50th independence day, brought blankets and medicines for earthquake victims. The Indian government was grateful for the gesture.

The destroyer Sazanami brought 300 blankets and 2,600 emergency canned meals for the Guangzhou victims, but China said this was not relief aid but “compassionate gifts.”

Why play with words when the point is assistance for victims? the Japanese navy asks.

Tokyo says the People’s Republic of China has been increasing its defense spending during the past 20 years, including an increase of 10 percent in 2007. Referring to the U.S. stance, the Japanese authorities insist that China’s spending should be more transparent and that Beijing should announce the true goal of its military buildup.

In April, China deployed a nuclear-powered missile submarine at a naval base in the south. China can also use Russian and locally made fighters against Japan’s U.S.-built Boeing-McDonnell-Douglas F-15 Eagle combat aircraft, and Beijing also recently tested an intermediate-range missile that can reach Japan.

Taken together, this indicates China is working to become a strong, if not the strongest, regional power, strong enough to take on more than just Taiwan.

Japanese Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba warned at a news conference against thinking the latest development had thawed the ice in Sino-Japanese relations.

Tokyo is not convinced when Chinese diplomats say the Japanese warship’s visit is a harbinger of peace that they welcome wholeheartedly. According to Japan, China’s efforts to increase its gold and currency reserves, dominate other countries economically and modernize its armed forces are a global hazard.

Japan most likely will try to win the support of the United States in bringing pressure to bear on China after the November presidential elections. However, some Japanese analysts say the United States is too busy in the Middle East to offer more than just symbolic gestures.

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