PEKING — Four decades ago, China and Japan were concluding the most brutal war in the history of their rivalry, a conflict in which Mao Tse-tung exhorted his troops to "fight the enemy to the last drop of our blood."
But recently, a ranking Chinese official on a trip to Japan spoke casually of the war and the eight-year Japanese occupation of much of China, from 1937 to 1945, as "just a moment" in the history of relations between the two countries.
The official, Peng Zhen, a member of the Politburo of China's Communist Party and chairman of the National People's Congress, said China and Japan now have the "best relations in more than 100 years."
That is no exaggeration. These two old rivals have become the best of friends. As a Western diplomat put it recently, "China has the best relations with Japan of any major nation, and Japan has the greatest access of any foreign country to China."
Consider the following:
--In political terms, no other country enjoys the sort of entree the Japanese have to high-ranking Chinese officials. Diplomats from other countries speak with open envy of the ease with which Japanese diplomats and visiting officials get in to see Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping and Communist Party Secretary Hu Yaobang.
--Economically, Japan is China's principal trading partner. Indeed, Japanese companies are selling so many television sets and other consumer goods in China that the centuries-old mercantile dream of reaping the wealth of the China market no longer seems fantastic.
--Culturally, the two countries are drawing increasingly closer. Last year, about 350,000 Japanese tourists visited China, far more than from any other country and about a third of the tourist total. A Japanese youth delegation received prominence and favored treatment at China's National Day celebrations last October.
--Over the last year, China and Japan have even taken some steps toward military cooperation. High-ranking defense officials of the two countries have begun to exchange visits and to make "inspection tours" of each other's troops. Haruo Natsume, a Japanese vice minister of defense, will visit China this month to talk with Chinese military leaders about "strategy, the military situation in Asia and the Soviet military buildup in the Far East," according to a Japanese statement.
All this is little short of amazing when viewed in the light of history. Over the last 400 years, China and Japan have gone to war three times. In the war of 1894-'95, China lost control of Taiwan, and in the war of 1937-'45 it suffered casualties of about 1.3 million dead and 1.8 million wounded.
Hostility toward Japan provided the principal impetus for China's May 4 Movement, the 1919 series of demonstrations that galvanized Chinese intellectuals, students and writers. And anti-Japanese sentiment was an important element in helping Mao and his Communist Party win popular support away from Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists in the 1930s and 1940s.
The events of the first half of this century have not been entirely forgotten here. Until very recently, it was commonplace for Chinese officials to warn of the dangers of a possible revival of Japanese militarism.
Three years ago, Japanese education officials and publishers revised some textbooks in a way that virtually exonerated Japan of responsibility for starting World War II and seemed to gloss over atrocities by Japanese troops in China.
That episode rekindled memories of the war and touched off a furor in China. But it blew over after Japanese officials promised to correct the textbooks.
No 'Residue of Hatred'
"I don't think there's the residue of hatred toward the Japanese here that you can see in the Soviet treatment of Germany," a Peking-based diplomat said. "There seems to be a conscious effort by officials on both sides not to fan the flames."
The only discernible source of friction these days between the two countries is a bit of low-key grumbling by Chinese officials that Japan is not investing enough money or transferring enough technology to China.
Some analysts believe the two countries could become rivals again in the 21st Century if China succeeds in developing its economy to the extent that it becomes a threat to Japan.
"There seems to be a school of thought in Japan that says you should not give the Chinese too much, that you may create a monster," a diplomat from an Asian country said.
For the present, however, the Chinese government looks on Japan as a bridge to the West and a model for China's ambitious modernization effort.
Admiration for Recovery
Indeed, Chinese leaders sometimes compare what they are attempting today with the Meiji Restoration, when Japan ended its self-imposed isolation and in the late 19th Century opened its doors to the West.
Chinese leaders also express admiration for Japan's ability to rebuild and turn itself into an economic superpower after the devastation of World War II.