TOKYO—In spite of growing economic co-dependence, Japan and China can't seem to stop picking fights with each other.
The slow deterioration of relations between the Asian giants concerns the United States because regional instability could shake the world economy and unleash military competition in a region already roiled by North Korea's quest for nuclear weapons.
New recriminations between Japan and China involve maritime traffic in the East China Sea, purported incursions by Chinese aircraft into Japanese airspace, the suicide of a Japanese consular official in Shanghai, and whether Japan's foreign minister made a slip of the tongue in a recent reference to Taiwan.
A year after anti-Japanese riots erupted in China, many Japanese have become wary, even frightened, of their huge neighbor. Feeding on the public mood, Japanese officials increasingly use blunt language when talking about China, a sharp departure from past practice.
Most vocal are Foreign Minister Taro Aso and chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, who are vying to replace Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. Koizumi steps down in September.
Aso calls China a potential military adversary and has blasted its double-digit annual defense increases as creating "a sense of threat" in Northeast Asia.
Abe has cast Japan and China as radically different. "We do not share fundamental values about freedom and human rights," he told the financial daily newspaper Nihon Keizai Shimbun.
Such statements signal "a huge change" and arise "from a sense of frustration," said Yoshihide Soeya, a China specialist at Keio University in Tokyo. He said the two politicians operate from the belief "that so far, Japan has been too silent on these issues, too low posture."
The relationship between China and Japan is typically described as "politically cold and economically hot." Indeed, China is now Japan's largest trading partner. Despite the anti-Japanese protests last year, which caused considerable damage to the Beijing embassy and a consulate in Shanghai, Japan's direct investment in China rose 19.8 percent in 2005.
The United States seeks good relations with China and Japan, its third and fourth largest trading partners, respectively. Yet it's bolstering its longtime military alliance with Japan while viewing China, which is building up its own military, as a potential adversary.
Much of the tension between Japan and China is due to disputes over Japan's wartime history, Koizumi's annual visits to the Yasukuni war shrine, energy resources and territory.
A brief row erupted in mid-April when Chinese authorities banned ship traffic near disputed gas fields in the East China Sea midway between China and Japan. China claims it has rights to the Pinghu gas field there. Tokyo protested.
Beijing later backed off, citing a technical misunderstanding.
Still unclear is if the brief "no sail zone" announcement was an effort to tweak Japan.
China took umbrage that Japan would consider the incident anything but an innocent technical error. "We'd like to convey our dissatisfaction with Japan ... making a big fuss about the issue," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said afterward.
The two sides increasingly argue over sovereignty of the gas fields, and the nearby disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, and the sparring has taken on a military dimension.
Japan said last week that it scrambled interceptor jets 107 times against Chinese reconnaissance aircraft in 2005, an eightfold increase over 2004.
"Chinese activities in areas around Japanese territory have reached unprecedented levels," Gen. Hajime Massaki, chairman of the Joint Staff Committee, told reporters.
Also troubling relations is a Japanese accusation this year that China launched a spy operation to pry state secrets from a Japanese consular official in Shanghai, leading him to commit suicide in May 2004.
Japan says Chinese intelligence operatives tried to extort special codes to decipher diplomatic cables from the official, threatening to expose an alleged affair of his with a local woman in Shanghai.
In another matter, China grew incensed when Aso, the Japanese foreign minister, told a legislative panel in Tokyo on March 9 that self-governed Taiwan was a "country" that practiced rule of law. China claims Taiwan as part of its territory.
Aso cited Taiwan's democracy, free-market economy and legal system, saying, "It is a country that shares values with Japan." Almost immediately, Aso backtracked and said, "I somehow called it `a country.'"
Qin, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, shot back that China was "appalled by the comments," which constituted "wild interference" in China's affairs.
A foreign affairs expert in Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party, legislator Ichita Yamamoto, dismissed Aso's remarks as unimportant, saying he typically has slips of the tongue.
Soeya, the Keio University scholar, said he wasn't so sure. The foreign minister clearly "doesn't like China," he said. "To that extent, you become pro-Taiwan."
Experts in both nations say they worry that mutual public antipathy may affect foreign policy. Even as trade relations grow, Japanese and Chinese leaders haven't met for a summit since 2001.
"The Japanese and Chinese people's impressions of each other have deteriorated progressively, and I find that worrisome," Koreshige Anami, Japan's former ambassador to China, said before recently leaving Beijing.
Yet on a day-to-day basis, Soeya said, lower-level Japanese bureaucrats and their Chinese counterparts handle an array of matters without great incident.
"It is really a strange state of relations," Soeya said. "The public mood is quite bad, but the working relationship is not bad at all."
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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