THE CAR COLUMN
In Today's Newspaper
A Chinese Prime Minister Scores Well in Japan
By Philip Bowring - International Herald Tribune
TOKYO - Zhu Rongji's visit to Japan has been a foreign public relations triumph for the Chinese prime minister. There has been method and clear purpose behind the mix of charm, bluntness and openness he has displayed during his six days here, from Thursday to Tuesday. China badly needed to its improve relations with Japan.
In November 1998, a visit to Japan by President Jiang Zemin was so dominated by issues of history and China's demands for apologies that progress on other fronts got scant attention and did little to offset the Japanese public's negative perception of China. Beijing's hectoring, the buildup of its military might, threats against Taiwan, memories of Tiananmen and Japan's poor returns from large investments in China came together to make many Japanese see China as an unfriendly and potentially hostile neighbor.
Mr. Zhu has skirted skillfully around the history issue by suggesting that it is up to Japan to decide on making a formal apology for the past. He said he did not hold the Japanese people responsible, but the regime at the time. One should learn from history and not repeat mistakes, he said.
He took a conciliatory approach to Japanese concerns about Chinese ''research'' ships' presence in Japanese waters, and sought to downplay Chinese military spending by claming that it is less than that of Japan. He encouraged investment in China, while advising Japanese to choose their partners carefully. Chinese officials have also beenat pains to praise Japan's past aid contributions to China's development.
All in all, the object has been tomake a fresh start to relations similarto that achieved by Deng Xiaoping's visit in 1978, which coincided withthe beginning of China's reformsand led to the huge Japanese aid program of the 1980s.
China now wants to use its impending entry into the World Trade Organization to spark a new wave of Japanese investment on the mainland. Mr. Zhu is more aware than most that modernization of state enterprises badly needs injections of know-howas well as capital. China also wants a revival of Japanese aid commitments, particularly to speed up development of China's poorer regions.
There are strategic as well as economic imperatives for China. Suspicions of China's aims has driven Japan even closer to the United States. The U.S.-Japanese security treaty has been strengthened.
Beijing needs to head off pro-Taiwan sentiment, which has been growing in Japan. The Taiwanese harbor few resentments over Japanese occupation, and many in Japan would like to see more support given to the island state.
For its part, Japan senses that its strategic partnership with the United States may begin to wane if the Kor-ean situation makes the U.S. troop presence no longer welcome or necessary. Meanwhile, Japan is well aware that China's influence on the peninsula is much greater than its own.
Both sides sense that they have become too reliant on the U.S. export market and need to develop their own bilateral trade, and promote regional trade generally, if outward-oriented growth is to continue when a U.S. downturn finally arrives. China relies on the U.S. market more than any other Asian exporter, and without export growth Japan's economic performance would be even worse than it is already.
None of this is to deny that in the longer run Chinese-Japanese strategic rivalry in Northeast Asia will be intense, particularly if the United States reduces its commitments in the region and leaves a non-nuclear Japan facing a nuclear China. There are also now fewer points of friction between Japan and Russia than between Japan and China.
Beijing will also want to thwart Japanese hopes that the yen and Tokyo will gradually become the keys to close financial integration in East Asia.
But for now, China in particular sees that it needs a better relationship with Japan, and Mr. Zhu has done a first-class job of promoting it.