Leaders of China, Japan aim to fix rift

Hu, Koizumi try to defuse their countries' tensions

April 24, 2005|By Mark Magnier | Mark Magnier,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BEIJING - Chinese President Hu Jintao and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi met yesterday on the sidelines of a trade conference in Indonesia in a bid to stem mounting tension between their countries over the past month.

Both nations expressed hope for improved relations during the one-hour meeting held at the end of a two-day summit in Jakarta for Asian and African leaders. But Hu urged Japan to face its history squarely.

"At the moment, Sino-Japanese relations face a difficult situation. Such a difficult situation is not one we want to see," Hu said in a statement after the closed-door meeting, adding that continued strains "would be detrimental to China and Japan, and would affect stability and development in Asia."

Relations between the two Asian neighbors have deteriorated to their lowest level since Beijing and Tokyo resumed diplomatic relations in 1972. Street demonstrations have flared across China, leading to attacks on Japan's embassy and consulates, and vandalization of Japanese cars and businesses.

Chinese outrage followed Japan's announced bid for a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council and its approval of a junior high school textbook that critics say glosses over the country's brutal wartime occupation of China and other nations in East Asia.

Before yesterday's meeting, China refused to confirm publicly its willingness to attend the session, despite Japan's request for nearly a week that the two leaders talk and clear the air.

Last week, Japan sent Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura on an emergency fence-mending mission to Beijing asking for an apology and compensation for protest-related damage. In doing so, Japan gave China a forum to accuse it of not being willing to make apologies or compensation. Machimura was sent packing with nothing to show for his trip.

Many Chinese also questioned Koizumi's expression of "deep remorse" in a speech Friday in Indonesia, noting that it occurred on the same day that 80 lawmakers in Tokyo visited Yasukuni Shrine, where several war criminals are memorialized.

Beijing and Shanghai streets were quiet yesterday after three weekends of anti-Japanese street protests. Paramilitary troops in the two cities far outnumbered civilians around the Japanese Embassy, official residence and consulate. Beijing has mounted a campaign in recent days to reduce tensions amid fears by the Communist Party that Chinese protesters could start turning their attention to the country's many domestic problems, spurring instability.

Few of the issues driving the Sino-Japanese tensions are particularly new. History has been a major irritant between Japan and many East Asian nations for decades.

Under Koizumi, Japan has become much more willing to project its military power, albeit in measured steps, with the positioning of troops in Iraq and a declaration that it considers Taiwan an area of strategic concern. Beijing considers Taiwan a breakaway province and bristles at what it deems "meddling in its internal affairs."

Yesterday, Hu told Japan to handle the Taiwan issue carefully.

Other countries in Southeast Asia have a big interest in seeing relations improve, given their strong economic and political ties with both sides.

"Southeast Asia doesn't like to see two elephants fight," said Toh Lamseng, a visiting professor of international relations at Peking University. "If they do, smaller countries might get smashed."

The United States has also sent signals that it would like to see friendlier relations between the two nations. Both are important players in talks aimed at shutting down North Korea's nuclear weapons program. And tensions increase the chance that there could be a military misstep, perhaps over Taiwan.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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