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China/Japan: New Sour Note On Bilateral Relations

China's strained relations with Japan took another turn for the worse yesterday when Vice Prime Minister Wu Yi cancelled a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, and cut short her visit to Japan. Beijing blamed the decision on remarks made by the Japanese premier about visiting a controversial war shrine, which honours convicted war criminals as well as Japan's 2.5 million war dead. China has repeatedly criticised visits by Japanese leaders to the shrine.

Prague, 24 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- It was meant as a fence-mender after last month's anti-Japanese demonstrations in China. Instead, Wu Yi's visit marks yet another downward twist in the plummeting spiral of Chinese-Japanese relations.

The good intentions were forgotten, it seems, when Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi suggested during the visit by Wu Yi that he was still considering making his annual pilgrimage to the Yasukuni shrine, a sanctuary which honours the 2.5 million Japanese who have died in wars since the shrine was founded in 1869 -- some of them wars of conquest against China. Among those commemorated at Yasukuni are 14 Class A war criminals executed at the end of World War II.

Koizumi's remarks were at the very least badly timed. The Chinese deputy prime minister was so incensed she cancelled her visit just hours before she was due to meet the Japanese prime minister -- a painful snub for a country as protocol-conscious as Japan. Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura tried to limit the damage but could barely conceal his irritation.

"I wouldn't go as far as some in calling it a lack of diplomatic manners but I certainly got the impression that this is not what a relationship between two trusting partners, let alone, two individuals, takes," Machimura says.

The abrupt termination of the visit, which was arranged at the request of the Chinese, reflects the increasingly febrile state of relations between the two countries. Last month, the Chinese police stood by while demonstrators ransacked Japanese businesses and government offices in Shanghai and Beijing. The protests were sparked by new Japanese school textbooks that gloss over the atrocities committed by Japanese troops in China between 1931 and 1945.

Today, the spokesman at the Japanese Embassy in Beijing, Ide Keiji, expressed regret that an opportunity had been missed to restore a degree of calm to the relationship.

"Of course, it is a pity that our prime minister could not meet with Madame Wu Yi. The Japanese side prepared very well for that meeting and my colleagues in the Japanese government prepared a new proposal in order to expand the exchange of tourists between the two countries," Keiji says.

Improving tourist ties might help but it is clear the Chinese want more from the Japanese than that. Sixty years after the last Japanese troops left Chinese soil, a cloud of resentment still poisons the air. China says Japan has failed to repent sincerely for its wartime wrongs, a belief angrily reflected by two passersby on the streets of Beijing this week.

"I resolutely oppose Koizumi's visit to the Yasukuni shrine. If the Japanese don't seriously consider history, I am personally very angry and I don't believe in their government," Chen Xilun said.

"The Japanese visiting the Yaukuni shrine is very wrong. They don't understand history. The shrine honours war criminals. The Chinese people and the whole world are not happy about this," Xiao Zhang said.

But while history undoubtedly lies at the basis of Sino-Japanese tensions, it is China's emergence as a giant on the Asian stage that has brought them to the fore now.

As Beijing feels its economic strength grow, it is flexing its muscles and challenging Japan's hitherto unrivalled hegemony.

Japan may yet provide the fulsome apology China seeks for its past offences, but the struggle for supremacy between the two giants of the Asian stage is only just beginning.