TOKYO — Anyone seeking signs that China and Japan are working hard to get their fraught relations back on track should consider this: After a four-year ban, the Chinese have agreed to resume eating Japanese rice.
China cut off rice imports from Japan in 2003, ostensibly because Beijing had found insects in a shipment. But the move smacked more of politics than health concerns, coming as the Asian powers were intensifying criticisms of each other that would strain political ties, spawn anti-Japanese riots in Chinese cities and fuel growing nationalist assertiveness in Japan.
Yet all the while, new ties were binding them. The booming Chinese economy was lifting Japan out of a recession it hadn't been able to shake for 15 years. The Chinese were realizing that their best hope for cleaning up their foul air and toxic waters lay with Japanese technology.
And while the politicians were refusing to meet, Chinese and Japanese consumers were discovering a fondness for each other's books and movies, electronic games and pop songs.
Now, faced with awareness that they govern countries that have forged a mutual dependency, Japanese and Chinese politicians are talking again. Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing was in Tokyo this week to lay the groundwork for an April visit by Premier Wen Jiabao, repayment for the courtesy call paid last October by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe shortly after he took office. Wen's visit will be the highest-level Chinese mission to Tokyo since 2000.
That's good news for the rest of Asia, where there is wariness about the Sino-Japanese rivalry. Beijing and Tokyo are expanding their military capabilities, with the Chinese buildup being countered by Japan's embrace of Washington's antimissile defense. And the two countries have a host of combustible quarrels that could flare into trouble at any time, from Japan's informal coziness with Taiwan to tensions over undersea energy deposits in contested waters, and the still-raw emotional wounds from a century of bloody history between them.
But at the moment, Japanese diplomats say they can't recall a period of such warmth and ease with their Chinese counterparts. Li hit all the right notes this week with his Japanese hosts, according to reports quoting politicians in the meetings. China had only peaceful intentions in space, Li said, answering Japan's concerns about a recent missile test that showed Beijing's ability to destroy a satellite. And he offered sympathy for Tokyo's determination to get answers from North Korea on the abduction of Japanese civilians in the 1970s and '80s.
In turn, Abe emerged from their meeting on Friday praising the new spirit of cooperation.
Seizing the moment
The improved mood has been made possible by September's retirement of Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, on whose watch relations sank so low that Chinese leaders refused to meet with him even on the sidelines of international conferences. Koizumi had angered Beijing's leaders with his visits to Yasukuni Shrine, a controversial Shinto memorial to Japan's war dead, including its World War II criminals.
The Chinese saw the pilgrimages as an attempt to recant responsibility for Japan's imperial history, which included the invasion and occupation of parts of China. In April 2005, anger at a new Japanese history textbook that glossed over war atrocities sparked riots and attacks on Japanese properties in Shanghai and Beijing.
In turn, Japanese politicians accused Beijing of stoking populist anger to deflect attention from China's problems.
Yet even as Koizumi was shrugging off Chinese demands to stop visiting Yasukuni, Japanese business leaders were quietly warning Tokyo that the hard-line diplomacy was threatening their ability to do business in the hot Chinese market. Many Japanese textile and manufacturing firms have relocated to China to take advantage of lower labor costs, and China has surpassed the United States as Japan's largest trading partner.
So both sides swiftly seized upon the opportunity presented by Koizumi's retirement to at least put a better public face on their diplomacy. China has made a strategic decision that foreign policy stability, or something close to it, is vital over the next few decades so it can concentrate on domestic development and its many social problems.
"The future trend in East Asia is economic integration," said Huang Dahui, professor of international affairs at People's University in Beijing. "Without Sino-Japanese cooperation, real integration is impossible."
Beijing is still wary of moving too quickly, as seen by the decision to take only a partial step toward normalization by sending Wen this year rather than President Hu Jintao.
As the anti-Japanese street protests showed, the Chinese public is an increasingly important factor in government decision-making. Chinese leaders now find themselves explaining and seeking to persuade, rather than dictating policy changes.