Chinese premier visits Japan

Other News Materials 11 April 2007 14:03

( AP ) - Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao arrived in Japan on Wednesday for a fence-mending trip aimed at setting aside the key trading partners' historical disputes and ramping up cooperation in business, environment and diplomacy.

Wen and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe were to ink a joint statement later in the day. Japanese media said the statement would avoid mention of disagreements over territory and the wartime past, and instead focus on working together.

The three-day visit - the first by a Chinese premier to Japan since 2000 - is a high-profile follow-up to Abe's groundbreaking trip to China in October, reversing a steep plunge in relations that had troubled the region and Japan's top ally, the United States.

"Both sides will need to work to flesh out the contents of their strategic and mutually beneficial relationship," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki said before Wen arrived. "We hope for positive results."

Wen arrived hours after the two countries signed an accord lifting Beijing's four-year ban on Japanese rice imports. China banned imports in 2003, claiming Japanese rice did not qualify for its tightened quarantine system.

National broadcaster NHK reported that, in addition, the two sides would call for speeding up talks on the exploration of natural gas fields in a disputed area of the East China Sea and cooperation on climate change.

China and Japan also will commit the two to working together to solve North Korea's abductions of Japanese citizens and reform of the U.N. Security Council, the report said. Japan is pushing for a permanent seat.

The Japanese were eager to stifle talk of disagreements. When asked about reports Wen considered the visit an "ice-melting" trip, Shiozaki said: "We're not aware of any remaining ice."

The Chinese premier was scheduled to give a speech to parliament and meet with business leaders and the emperor on Thursday, and even join in a game of baseball with college students in western Japan on Friday before returning to China.

The visit represents a further easing of ties strained for several years by Abe's predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, who angered Beijing and other Asian neighbors with repeated visits to a Tokyo shrine honoring Japanese war dead, including executed war criminals.

Japan invaded China in the 1930s and occupied huge swaths of the country until Tokyo's 1945 defeat in World War II.

Abe, however, moved quickly to repair ties with visits to Beijing and Seoul in October, only weeks after taking office. Wen's appearance in Tokyo should set the stage for a subsequent visit by Chinese President Hu Jintao to Japan and perhaps another Abe trip to China.

The rapprochement has required some careful shelving of the two countries' deep differences.

Japanese officials, including Foreign Minister Taro Aso, have been outspoken in the past about their concerns over China's rapid increase in military spending, while Beijing has warily watched Tokyo build up military ties with the United States. But such concerns have been muted in recent months.

The history issue, meanwhile, has been safely handed off to a special panel to examine the wartime past. China has apparently decided not to make a fuss over Abe's recent comments downplaying the military's role in forcing Chinese and Korean women into sexual slavery for Imperial troops during the war.

"Clearly, the Chinese have been incredibly restrained. They are very eager for this to be a success," said Jeffrey Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University in Tokyo.

One exception is a potential visit by Abe to the Yasukuni war shrine. Japanese media in Beijing reported last week that Wen called on Abe not to visit the shrine, which China sees as a glorification of Japanese military conquests in Asia in the 1930s and 40s.

Abe has refused to say whether he would go or not, but speculation is high that he would not risk a meltdown with Beijing by praying at the shrine.