Hu Jintao to visit Japan this week amid newly warm ties

By Anita Chang, AP

BEIJING — Chinese President Hu Jintao makes China’s highest-level visit to Japan in a decade this week to stabilize newly warming ties between the longtime rivals, in a trip likely to gloss over the knotty issues that bedeviled relations for years.

During the five-day visit that begins Tuesday, Hu is expected to play pingpong with Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda and chat about pandas. The two are also likely to discuss climate change, a dispute over contested gas fields in the East China Sea, Chinese food safety rules and perhaps Tibet.

Mostly the trip is intended to anchor the friendlier turn relations have taken after friction over the gas field, disputed borders, Japan’s treatment of its wartime invasion of China, anti-Japanese protests in China, and general Japanese uneasiness over Beijing’s rapidly growing diplomatic, military and economic power.

“Both countries are trying to stabilize relations and looking forward to managing their relations in a way that will help stabilize the region,” said Susan L. Shirk, a China politics expert at University of California, San Diego. “The fact of the visit is probably more significant than any specific agreement that will be announced during the visit.”

A potential spoiler is Tibet. The trip will be Hu’s first overseas since protests erupted across Tibetan communities in western China in March, drawing international attention to the often-harsh Chinese rule in Tibet. If Japan voices any criticisms on Tibet — as Fukuda did with the Chinese foreign minister last month — Hu might issue a strong response given aggressive nationalist sentiment on the issue in China.

Overall, the positives are expected to dominate. Setting the tone, Hu told Japanese reporters in Beijing on Sunday his trip’s atmosphere will be like a “warm spring.” The phrase follows on a 2006 visit to Beijing by then-Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, which he called “ice-breaking” — re-establishing ties after five years without high level exchanges.

“I’m looking forward to meeting with my old Japanese friends and making more new friends during the upcoming visit,” Hu was quoted by the official Xinhua News Agency as telling the journalists.

One item on Japan’s wish list is a panda. Ling Ling, a 22-year-old giant panda at Tokyo’s largest zoo and a symbol of friendship with China, died last week of heart failure. “I heard that the main reason people used to go to Ueno Zoo was the panda. It would be nice if we have a panda there again,” Fukuda told reporters in Tokyo last week.

The two sides were working on a joint statement to be issued after the Hu-Fukuda summit on Wednesday. While Japan has not released details, Tokyo was hoping to win a commitment from China to participate fully in U.N.-led talks that would produce a new international agreement on climate change.

Analysts did not expect any major agreements on key divisive issues, such as their troubled history or the East China Sea gas field, which straddles contested waters but which Chinese firms are tapping. Both leaders do not want to appear soft to domestic audiences by compromising on key issues.