Chinese Premier Pays Visit to Japan

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Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao begins a three-day trip to Japan, hoping to repair strained relations between the Asian rivals. The effort shows that China considers Japan to be a key economic ally.


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne. Good morning.

The premier of China travels to Japan today for an official visit. That's news because China and Japan have long had chilly relations, dating back to Japan's aggression against China in World War II. The first sign of a thaw was a trip last fall to China by the prime minister of Japan. In a few moments we'll hear about the difficulties students from the two countries had when they tried to collaborate on a play.

Now for the politics we go to Beijing and NPR's Anthony Kuhn. Hello.


MONTAGNE: What's on the schedule for this visit? It's the first to Tokyo by a Chinese premier in years, right?

KUHN: Yes, it is. The first thing that's going to happen today is Premier Wen Jiabao and his host, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, are going to have a summit where they're going to talk about issues that the two sides can find common ground on, like cooperating on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, trade, energy cooperation. Then there will be a lot of sort of photo-op type things. Premier Wen may even go play baseball with college students in Kyoto. He may have an audience with Emperor Akihito. Basically, this is to show that after Abe's ice-breaking visit last fall, a full thaw is underway.

MONTAGNE: Well what are the major issues that would stand in the way of closer ties?

KUHN: Well the big issue hovering over all of this is how Japan will accommodate China's reemergence as Asia's predominant power. There are lots of frictions over, for example, China's military modernization and Japan's feelings that it's not transparent enough. And on China's side, Beijing is very uncomfortable about Japan's moves towards revising its post-World War II pacifist constitution and building its self-defense force into a regular, full-fledged army. There are also ongoing territorial disputes over parts of the East China Sea, which holds large energy reserves. And there are many issues also left over from World War II.

The Chinese have asked Shinzo Abe not to visit the Yasukuni Shrine, which contains the remains of World War II war criminals, but Abe hasn't publicly ruled this out. And there has also been a lot of rancor lately over the issue of Japan's World War II military brothels.

But I think we have to say that Beijing and Tokyo's motivations for controlling these tensions are still there. Japan's business community wants Abe to stop the shrine visits, and his public approval ratings have been sinking and he needs to show progress on the China issue. And as for China, they certainly want to avoid the kind of street protests they saw in 2005, because those of course could turn against the government if people feel that China is not taking a hard enough stance.

MONTAGNE: And are ordinary folks there in China, where you are, and Japan, are they paying attention to this visit?

KUHN: Well we certainly have the feeling that this is all not just history, but a very live issue today. The Asian media are giving lots of coverage to this issue. The Chinese press, we might add, have been ordered not to give any coverage that might hurt relations between the two countries. At the same time, there is a sensitive anniversary this year. It's the 70th anniversary of the Nanjing Massacre, in which China says 300,000 civilians were killed.

But I think, you know, what's really interesting is just if you talk to young people in both countries, there is still an undercurrent of nationalism in both places and it's very much directed against the other countries. And this keeps attitudes very much focused on this relationship and on today's visit.

MONTAGNE: Anthony, thank you very much.

KUHN: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Anthony Kuhn in Beijing, reporting on the Chinese-Japanese summit that begins today in Tokyo.

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