TOKYO—Hardly a month goes by without new irritants in relations between Japan and China. Recent grievances range from a soccer riot and submarine intrusion to dominion over a lighthouse and the granting of a visa to an octogenarian.
The public mood in each country is souring toward the other, prompting some experts to wonder whether leaders will keep a lid on nationalistic tensions. Both countries are important to stability in Asia and the U.S. economy: Japan is the world's second-largest economy, and China is a new power after two decades of fast growth.
It might seem that the two countries have little to complain about. Trade ties grow more robust each year. Last year, China (including Hong Kong) surpassed the United States as Japan's top trading partner. Japan can credit its fragile economic recovery to surging growth in China.
But the two nations compete for regional influence and reliable energy supplies. Political relations may be at their lowest point in decades as Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's government becomes more assertive toward China, ending a policy of seeking to avoid confrontation.
In an important sign of that shift, Japan and the United States said they had a common interest in the issue of Taiwan's security. China views Taiwan as part of its territory and has never renounced the right to use military power to take it over.
The comments about Taiwan came after a meeting with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, visiting Japanese Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura and Defense Agency chief Yoshinori Ono. The meeting focused on U.S.-Japan strategic cooperation in a post-Sept. 11 world, especially concerning North Korea's nuclear weapons program.
Rice said the ministers talked about "our desire for cooperative relations with China, our desire to ensure that the cross (Taiwan) strait issues can be resolved peacefully."
Japan and China haven't held regular summit meetings since Koizumi came to office in 2001. Both sides keep putting off meetings, citing grievances.
"People on both sides see the other as potential adversaries," said Takashi Inoguchi, a political scientist at the University of Tokyo.
The latest conflict centers on five uninhabited isles, known by the Japanese as the Senkaku Islands and by the Chinese as the Diaoyu. The islands are in the East China Sea, 125 miles northeast of Taiwan, near a continental shelf containing pockets of natural gas.
This month, Tokyo announced that the Japanese Coast Guard had assumed the maintenance of a private lighthouse on one of the islands, set up by a right-wing group in 1986 as a symbol of Japanese sovereignty.
China, which challenges Japan's claim to the islands, accused Japan of a "severe provocation" and said the move was "illegal and invalid" and "absolutely unacceptable."
Flare-ups over the islands have occurred in the past, but the stakes are rising. The islands, also claimed by Taiwan, include 11,700 square miles of surrounding maritime territory, rich in fishing resources, natural gas reserves and sea lanes critical in the event of war.
Japan and China already were jockeying over an undersea natural gas field in an area of the East China Sea where both nations claim exclusive economic control.
In mid-2004, China built offshore drilling platforms in waters that both countries agree are under China's control but within several miles of waters claimed by Japan.
Worried that Chinese drilling might suck up natural gas belonging to Japan, Tokyo's trade ministry last month gave a preliminary green light to two Japanese companies to drill in the area as well.
A painful history underlies current problems between Japan and China. Japan occupied much of China in the 1930s and `40s, until the end of World War II, and Japanese soldiers committed atrocities and killed hundreds of thousands of civilians.
Newspapers regularly complain about Japan's failure to clean up some 700,000 chemical weapon canisters left behind by its army in northeast China.
Chinese voice deep consternation over Koizumi's annual visits to the Yasukuni shrine, which honors Japanese war dead, including war criminals. Beijing says it's watching closely to see if he insists on going this year, the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II.
Relations have gone downhill following an ugly incident in Beijing last August. When a Chinese team lost an Asia Cup soccer match to a visiting Japanese team, police squads stood by as rampaging fans burned Japanese flags, taunted Japanese players and smashed a window of the Japanese ambassador's car. The rioting trapped some 2,000 Japanese fans in the stadium.
Many Japanese feel that China's leaders tolerate, or even foment, anti-Japanese sentiment as an outlet for frustrations as they crush political dissent.
On Nov. 10, Japan detected a Chinese submarine in its territorial waters and chased it away, drawing a belated and mild apology from Beijing. The intrusion was seen as a sign that China is projecting naval power deep into the Pacific Ocean at Japan's expense.
"China's military strategy has become even more assertive in the oceans," said Ikuo Kayahara, a former lieutenant general in Japan's Self-Defense Forces, noting that he believes China wants control of waters as far as the mid-Pacific Ocean.
For its part, China reacted angrily in December when Tokyo granted a visa to an 82-year-old former president of Taiwan, Lee Teng-hui, to spend his year-end holidays in Japan. Chinese authorities view Lee, who was educated in Japan and has long ties to the nation, as an architect of Taiwan's push for independence.
Last month, for the first time ever, the Japanese government named China as a security concern, along with North Korea.
Japan is discussing slashing its development aid to China, which has only recently dipped below $1 billion a year. Many Chinese view the aid as disguised wartime reparations for Japan's occupation of China and see no reason for it to end.
For their part, some Japanese voice frustration that they should aid a rival country that put a man in space in 2003 and will host the Olympic Games in 2008.
"China can stand on its own two feet. They are not so weak that they need help from other countries," said Fumio Kyuma, a former national defense chief and current legislator from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.
Some Japanese laud Koizumi's more confrontational stance toward China as a sign of backbone. Others, especially in the business community, see it as lacking in long-term strategy and skill in dealing with China's expansion.
"The idea of an Asian rival is so novel that Japan simply doesn't know how to respond," said Kurt W. Radtke, an Asia-Pacific specialist at Waseda University in Tokyo. "There's a sort of uncontrollable apprehension about a rising China."
(Knight Ridder correspondent Warren P. Strobel contributed to this report.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050218 Japan China
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