This is supposed to be China’s year – and by travelling to Japan, its president is showing fresh willingness to tackle one of its most difficult relationships

This was supposed to be the year when China saw its extraordinary economic rise crowned by the global recognition that it has long craved – and long been denied – by a hugely competent and successful staging of the Olympic games. If one thinks of all the exhibitions, television programmes and column inches that have been devoted to every aspect of Chinese society in this country over the course of the year as a microcosm of what is happening globally, China’s hopes have not been dashed.

But the riots in Tibet in March greatly tarnished Beijing’s reputation in the eyes of the world: it revealed a country that has signally failed to acknowledge and respect ethnic and racial difference. Tibet, for the moment, remains on hold, as we await the extent to which Beijing is serious about its talks with the representatives of the Dalai Lama.

Meanwhile, the Chinese government has made major progress on the two most important foreign policy issues that confront it, which both happen to be on its doorstep.
Hu Jintao is presently on a five-day visit to Japan, the first by a Chinese leader since 1998. Relations between the two countries went into deep freeze during the premiership of Junichiro Koizumi between 2001 and 2006, who insisted on visiting the Yasukuni war shrine, an action widely seen as a deliberate snub to China. As a result, all high-level contacts between the two countries were suspended.

Since Koizumi’s departure, relations between the second and third largest economies in the world have slowly been improving, helped by the fact that the present Japanese premier, Yasuo Fukuda, has long been associated with a more accommodating attitude towards China. The agreement signed by the two leaders fails to signal progress on any of the major issues that divide them, but nonetheless marks a significant improvement in relations.
The joint statement, reiterating that the two countries should be partners rather than a threat to each other, has been proclaimed as the fourth important document to be signed since Japan and China restored diplomatic relations in 1972. Underlying the deep animosity between the two countries is Japan’s occupation of China between 1931 and 1945 and its brutal treatment of the Chinese. In an attempt to defuse what is a highly-charged issue in China especially, the two governments earlier appointed a joint commission of historians to examine the matter which is due to report later this year.

The other major subject of contention – which could potentially lead to military conflict between the two countries – is the issue of sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands, which both claim, and the disputed maritime border in the East China Sea, which involves the rights to the rich reserves of oil and gas on the seabed. An agreement was supposed to have been reached in 2007, but Hu this week claimed that “prospects for settling the dispute are already in view and I’m happy about this”.

The divisions between the two countries are so deep and so intractable that it seems unlikely that any major breakthrough on the issues in dispute can be expected now or in the near future. Nonetheless, the fact that the two sides are talking and that the mood music is upbeat represents a significant advance. Japan is nervous and fearful of China’s rise while in China there is a deep loathing of the Japanese. The tensions between the two – and the resulting potential for conflict – are greater than is the case between any two other major powers. The rapprochement between Hu and Fukuda is a welcome sign and also serves to burnish China’s image as a responsible power prior to the Olympics.

The other major issue on which China has made progress this year is Taiwan. This largely got lost in the wave of revulsion over the treatment of Tibet, but in fact is highly significant. As far as China is concerned there is no issue of greater importance than the eventual return of Taiwan to China. Ever since 2000, it has been an increasingly elusive goal, however, as the Taiwanese displayed a growing desire to assert a Taiwanese rather than Chinese identity. But wooed by a clever Chinese charm offensive and mindful of the huge potential offered by the Chinese market, the Taiwanese decisively rejected the nationalists in the recent elections and turned once again to the Kuomintang and its new leader Ma Ying-jeou, who has promised to build a new and friendly relationship with China. From a Beijing perspective, the outlook for its relationship with Taiwan has rarely, if ever, looked better since the island first split from China in 1949. In April, Hu met the Taiwanese vice-president, the first ever high-level contact between the two sides.

If Hu finds himself confounded by Tibet, he can take considerable satisfaction from China’s improving relationship with Japan and especially Taiwan.