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China puts positive spin on relations with Japan

Pandas and ping-pong helped sweeten politics yesterday on day three of the Chinese President Hu Jintao's state trip to Japan, which is warming frigid ties between the two old enemies despite being marred by controversy over Tibet.

On the first visit to Japan by a Chinese leader in a decade, Mr Hu, 65, played table tennis with the Olympic hopeful Ai Fukuhara, surprising millions of TV viewers by giving the 19-year-old a run for her money.

A beaming Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda praised Mr Hu's "strategic" playing, adding: "I'm glad I didn't play him. He was a bit scary," said a housewife, Junko Sugimoto, watching at home.

The Chinese leader has scored a diplomatic coup by offering Tokyo two giant pandas to replace Ling Ling, who died of old age last week. More than 10,000 people have queued up at Ueno Zoo to sign a book of condolence to the beloved panda, one of the most famous symbols of Sino-Japanese ties.

Mr Hu's goodwill visit has been dogged, however, by pro-Tibet supporters, hundreds of whom shouted slogans yesterday outside Tokyo's Waseda University, where he told his audience that the two nations should be partners, not rivals, despite their troubled history. "Both sides should support the other side's peaceful development, and see the other's development as an opportunity, not a threat," he said.

Mr Hu said Japan's Second World War aggression had brought about "enormous misfortune to the Chinese people" and "also greatly harmed the Japanese public". But he added that Japan has nothing to fear from a more powerful China. "We will not engage in an arms race and will not become a threat to any country," he said.

Last year Beijing stunned Tokyo by carrying out an unannounced anti-satellite weapon test, and its sharply rising military budget – £18bn – has raised fears that Asia faces a new arms race. Japan's announced military budget for 2006 was £21bn. Bilateral trade is booming but diplomacy has only recently begun thawing after a decade of bitter disputes.

The two leaders have been criticised during Mr Hu's trip for glossing over their differences. Mr Fukuda praised China's recent decision to negotiate with representatives of the Dalai Lama but has otherwise treaded carefully around the Tibetan minefield.

Mr Hu, meanwhile, who needs Tokyo's diplomatic support for the coming Olympics, has taken a more conciliatory approach to history than the last Chinese leader to visit Japan, Jiang Zemin, who demanded an apology for Japan's wartime aggression when he came 10 years ago.