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Chinese leader to seek to mend ties with Japan

BEIJING—Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao will fly to Japan this week to mend relations between neighbors tightly linked by trade but torn by years of warfare and squabbling.

On the first such visit by a Chinese premier since 2000, Wen will make a rare speech to Japan's Parliament, confer with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, meet Emperor Akihito and seek to assuage widespread concerns among Japanese that China's rise threatens the region.

Tensions have subsided markedly between the neighbors since Abe came to office last September, replacing Junichiro Koizumi, whose regular visits to Yasukuni, a sanctuary in Tokyo where more than a dozen major World War II war criminals are enshrined, enraged China. Abe hasn't visited the shrine while in office.

In a sign of the unfolding rapprochement, China responded with restraint to Abe's denials in early March that Japan's military had forced Asian "comfort women" into sex slavery in military brothels during World War II, a lightning-rod issue elsewhere in East Asia.

Leaders of both nations appear determined not to let an array of current and historical disputes get in the way of thriving economic relations.

Trade between China and Japan has almost quadrupled in the last decade, reaching $211 billion last year. China is Japan's largest trading partner, and Japan is China's third largest trade partner, after the European Union and the United States.

During Wen's visit, which begins Wednesday in Tokyo and ends Friday in Osaka, China is expected to lift a four-year-old ban on Japanese rice imports, and Japan will offer to transfer energy-saving technology to China. The two nations will launch a ministerial-level economic dialogue, raising ties to a strategic level.

Also on the agenda are Japan's grievances with North Korea over the abductions of at least 16 of its citizens by Pyongyang's secret agents decades ago. China is North Korea's only ally. Other issues include energy rights in the East China Sea, the effects of pollution in China on Japan and China's rising military expenditures.

In public remarks, Wen has focused on the positive, declaring that his trip will be an "ice-thawing" journey after Abe's "ice-breaking" visit to China last October.

Last week, Wen said he expected Abe to return to China later this year.

Some analysts speculate that Wen wants to stabilize relations with Japan before a crucial autumn congress of the Communist Party, which meets every five years.

Yet Chinese experts on Japan fret that Abe may veer to the political right as his support slides at home, especially before Upper House elections in July.

"Abe is still under great pressure from Japan's die-hard rightists, from whom he wants support. His recent comments over sex slaves were made for such purposes," said Liu Jiangyong, an expert on Sino-Japanese relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

"It is very probable that Abe's stance on historical issues will wobble under pressure from rightists," Liu said. "This will bring uncertainties to Sino-Japan relations."


(McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent Fan Linjun contributed to this report.)



(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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