Japan and China unite against Korean threat

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The Independent Online

Fraught relations between China and Japan eased yesterday as the two Asian titans agreed to set aside some of their differences over Tokyo's war record and displayed a united front in condemning North Korea's plans for a nuclear test.

In what marks a significant improvement in mood between Asia's two economic powerhouses, Beijing officials said a visit by Japan's new Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, was a "turning point" in the relationship between the neighbours.

Links between China and Japan have been beset by sabre-rattling, grumbling and passive aggression, but there has been increasing nervousness in the region over last week's threat by North Korea to test its first atom bomb.

It is the first time that Japan and China have met since 2001, and Mr Abe had long talks with President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, as well as the leading legislator Wu Bangguo.

Beijing believes Japan has not done enough to atone for its actions during the occupation of China and the Second World War, and it viewed the regular visits paid by Mr Abe's predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, where war criminals are honoured alongside the war dead, as a serious insult to China and a glorification of militarism.

Anti-Japanese sentiment is common on China's streets, even though economic ties are close; China is Japan's top trade partner.

Tokyo feels harangued by China over its war record, and fears the way that Beijing has sought to match rising economic power with diplomatic muscle. Japan insists it has already said sorry for events of more than 60 years ago.

Mr Abe expressed "deep remorse" for Japan's actions, which he said had inflicted "grave damage and suffering and left scars on the people of Asia".

Breaking with tradition by making China his first foreign destination, rather than Japan's traditional ally Washington, Mr Abe told reporters he felt certain his visit would "elevate Sino-Japanese ties to a higher level". He said he wanted to "build a relationship of trust with Chinese leaders".

Aware of the significance of Mr Abe's decision to soothe relations, Beijing responded in kind. President Hu's message, quoted on the state-run Xinhua news agency, was overwhelmingly positive. "Your visit is serving as a turning point in China-Japan relations and I hope it will also serve as a new starting point for the improvement and development of bilateral ties," he told Mr Abe.

Beijing had flatly refused to hold a summit with Mr Koizumi, who stepped down last month, because of his repeated pilgrimages to Yasukuni.

The main reason for the rapprochement appears to be the nuclear stand-off on the Korean peninsula. China is North Korea's only ally of importance in the world, and aid from China is seen by many analysts as keeping Kim Jong Il's regime alive. Beijing has hosted stalled six-party talks on the North Korean nuclear issue.

China tried to moderate world reactions to a missile test earlier this year, but has taken a much sterner view of Pyongyang's threat to stage a nuclear test, and has been forthright in its condemnation. Mr Abe's statement reflected this.

"Japan and China shared the view that North Korea's nuclear test is unacceptable. And this is a strong message to North Korea," the countries said in a communiqué. China and Japan were committed to realising "a non-nuclear Korean peninsula as well as maintaining peace and stability in north-east Asia", according to the statement.

China's tough message to its ally could prove significant and many regional voices are clamouring for a return to the six-party talks, which included both Koreas, the US, China, Russia and Japan.

Mr Abe flies to Seoul today for talks with South Korea's President, Roh Moo Hyun, which are expected to focus on North Korea's threat and underline the tougher line regionally on Pyongyang's behaviour.