Japan, China hope Hu's visit will help mend ties

( AFP ) - President Hu Jintao is due Tuesday in Japan for the first visit by a Chinese head of state in a decade, in a sign of steady reconciliation between the Asian giants despite lingering disputes.

Hu will spend five days in Japan, during which he is expected to go on a diplomatic charm offensive -- playing ping-pong, chatting with students and touring historic temples.

Japan, which counts on commerce with its fast-growing neighbour as a key driver of its economic recovery, has been preparing for months for Hu's visit -- only the second ever by a Chinese president.

"I hope to have candid talks on how Japan and China can cooperate in a wide range of fields, which are not limited to bilateral relations but also include the peace and security of this region," Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda said Friday.

In a sign of just how important the visit is for Japan, Emperor Akihito, who makes few public appearances, is scheduled to see Hu three times during his stay.

But Japan and China have uneasy ties dating back to the legacy of Japanese aggression before World War II, and several thorny issues remain on the agenda.

They failed in marathon talks to achieve their goal of resolving one of the most difficult disagreements before the summit -- a territorial feud over lucrative gas fields in the East China Sea.

Hu's visit also comes in the wake of a row over poisoned Chinese-made dumplings that sickened Japanese consumers and an international uproar over China's crackdown on protests against its rule in Tibet.

Japan has voiced concern over the situation in the Himalayan region and pro-Tibet demonstrators say they are planning to protest during Hu's visit, his first overseas since the unrest broke out in March.

But analysts say the visit is more about symbolism than taking up disputes, with both countries believing that neither stands to benefit from high tension.

"Neither Japan or China can afford to make this visit a failure because China is hosting the Beijing Olympics and Japan is hosting the Group of Eight summit" in July, said Satoru Miyamoto, a Northeast Asia specialist at the Japan Institute of International Affairs.

"Cooperation on climate change, which is important for the success of the G8 summit, is one of few practical achievements we can expect during Hu's visit," Miyamoto said.

Fukuda, who visited China in December, is likely hoping that the summit will boost his popularity, which has recently sunk to fresh lows over domestic issues.

Fukuda is a longstanding champion of reconciliation with China. His father, also a premier, signed a landmark peace treaty with Beijing in 1978, although history issues have remained a thorn in relations.

China refused all high-level contact with Japan during the 2001-2006 premiership of Junichiro Koizumi due to his annual visits to a shrine that honours Japanese war dead including war criminals.

Koizumi is not expected to attend a breakfast which Hu will hold with former prime ministers, a Japanese foreign ministry official said on condition of anonymity.

History issues haunted the last visit by a Chinese president to Japan. When Jiang Zemin came to Tokyo on a landmark trip in 1998, the two countries feuded over whether Japan had issued a strong enough apology for its past aggression.

Jiang's visit "at least for the Japanese side was conceived as a diplomatic failure," said the Japanese official.

He noted that Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi did not raise history issues when he visited Tokyo last month to lay the groundwork for Hu's summit.

"I hope China has learned that taking up the history issue is tricky in relations with Japan," the official said.

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