HONG KONG: Of symbolism there was plenty, but whether Prime Minister Wen Jiabao's landmark visit to Japan will actually lead to closer cooperation remains to be seen. Given the recent history-obsessed relations between China and Japan it was perhaps inevitable that the past should again get more attention than the future. But broadly it looks to have been another success for Chinese diplomacy, and for Wen's projection soft power.
The visit in itself was clear enough indication of China's desire to improve relations sometimes in the face of very mixed signals from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan.
While Abe's visit to Beijing last October may have set the ball rolling, some of his subsequent comments about history, and Japan's high-profile strengthening of strategic links with the United States and Australia, could have derailed the attempted rapprochement. Wen was able to use the visit to score points by raising the history issue but in the mildest, politest of ways.
Japan is also well aware that China, for domestic as well as diplomatic reasons, has cracked down on the more virulent anti-Japanese activities by mainland Web sites and patriotic groups. In return China must surely expect no more visits to the Yasukuni war shrine, events that, however justifiable to a domestic audience, have been a disaster for Japan's diplomacy.
China will also be hoping for a revival of Japanese business interest in investing in China which cooled as a result of the widespread anti-Japanese sentiment generated by the Yasukuni visits.
The prime minister went out of his way to praise Japan's contribution to China's economic growth and modernization. Beijing is aware that for all its current economic success it needs more investment in the higher-technology industries in which Japan excels. It also feels a need to cement its economic relations with Japan (and South Korea) as trade tensions with the United States increase, along with the possibility of a U.S. recession.
On specific issues, contentious or otherwise, the visit was short of progress. A promised effort to come to an accommodation over the disputed area of east China sea thought to contain oil and gas deposits was a significant step forward. Sharing of the disputed resources should be possible. But China's continued verbal challenges - mostly recently to Vietnam - to its southern neighbors over their South China sea resource rights suggests an accord will be difficult.
On broader strategic issues, there was silence. Defusing North Korea remains a topic on which the two can broadly agree, but will be less of an issue in the future should the recent nuclear deal with Pyongyang work out. China's opposition to Japan's Security Council membership remains as firm as ever - and is a major impediment to broader reform of the Council. Military build-ups on both sides seem likely to continues unabated, with Japan's worries about the China's acquisition of naval and air capability being reflected in what to Beijing appears a China-containment policy involving the United States, Australia and India. Announced exchanges of visits of senior military personnel are public relations exercises that do some good but do not change underlying realities.
The communiqué also lacked anything specific on international trade and finance issues, even though these are crucial current for both sides. There are no joint efforts to push the Doha round of WTO talks, no joint positions on the common problem of global trade surpluses and currency values. Each country continues to try to sign bilateral trade deals with its Asian neighbors, deals more likely to lead to competition for clients than to regional trade liberalization. However, there is a promise of cooperation on environmental issues that could yield results now that China acknowledges the seriousness of the problem.
The "thawing" that the visit represents must surely be welcome if only for dampening the xenophobic rhetoric of which both are guilty. But like China's recent strengthening of ties with traditional rivals Russia and India, it must be seen as part of China's two-pronged strategy, presenting a friendly face and focus on economic relations while continuing to build its power-projection ability through military, investment and diplomatic means.
Japan and China are also both just feeling their way toward a northeast Asia in which the United States will be a less dominant factor than hitherto, and in which the futures of the Korean peninsula and Taiwan, both historic focuses of Sino-Japanese rivalry, remain unclear.