Global warming tops the agenda of the July G8 summit of leading industrial nations in Hokkaido, but warming of a more beneficial sort is coming to Japan, too. Asia's two great powerhouses, China and Japan, are trying to calm their long and bitter rivalry, in ways that could transform the region.
The animosity dates to Japan's imperial aggression during World War II, and has been fueled by modern politicians. Former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, whose term ended in 2006, persisted in visiting a Tokyo shrine to war dead, including men the Chinese consider war criminals. This unleashed violent protests in China. Now current Prime Minister Yasuko Fukuda is sending conciliatory signals by avoiding shrine visits in favor of uplifting talk about what unites China and Japan. He's also accepted an invitation to the opening ceremonies of Beijing's Olympics and has pointedly declined to criticize Chinese human-rights violations.
These efforts appear to be paying off. In late June, the destroyer Sazanami became the first Japanese naval vessel to put into a Chinese port since the war. One week earlier, the two sides ended a long-running dispute over natural-gas fields in the East China Sea by agreeing to share the resource. That deal was likely smoothed by Chinese President Hu Jintao's visit to Japan in May. Hu put a twist on Ping-Pong diplomacy by playing a bit himself, coming off as a regular guy.
Public opinion still lags behind the politics, however. Japanese tend to view China as an economic rival and a security threat, and the recent Chinese crackdown on Tibet didn't help. In May, a newspaper poll revealed that 51 percent of Japanese favor a "tougher" line on China; only 26 percent want greater friendship. Meanwhile, a plan to send Japanese Air Force planes to deliver aid to Sichuan's earthquake zone was quietly shelved in early June, after it sparked outraged protest in China. Since then, the Chinese authorities have apparently begun to censor the same kinds of Japan-bashing that they used to encourage.
Both governments seem eager for rapprochement, and with good reason. Bilateral trade hit $277 billion last year, with China (Hong Kong included) edging out the United States as Japan's largest export market for the first time. That means the two economies are ever more interdependent, and trade could grow if relations keep warming. The nations recently boosted student exchanges and the deployment of Japanese experts to help control pollution in Chinese factories. Those are small steps in the annals of great-power relations, but may prove early acts in a larger historical drama. For now, every little bit helps.