How will China-Japan relations weather storm?

BEIJING, China — China has sent a 15-man rescue to team and promises of aid to Japan in the wake of its catastrophic earthquake and tsunami, but
extensions of help in crisis won’t necessarily mean a long-term shift in the two countries’ contentious relationship.

When China suffered an earthquake in rural Sichuan province that killed nearly 90,000 people three years ago, a small Japanese search-and-rescue crew made international headlines by helping in recovery efforts. The symbolism was big: Japanese troops had not been allowed in China for 60 years, since the Second World War ended and they were driven out.

Sichuan’s disaster response also marked the start of a much more transparent attitude of a country that had buried its 1976 Tangshan earthquake and refused foreign aid, in a disaster that may have killed 250,000 people.

The Japanese crew in Sichuan, using world-class rescue equipment and search dogs, found not a single survivor; in part perhaps because negotiations delayed their arrival by several days. When they left China, shuttled out the side door of a small hotel in Chengdu, the Japanese crew seemed assured that they had done their best.

Now the world’s second-largest economy and a global political force, China is in position to extend a hand.

China’s state-run media reported heavily on the offers of aid, running photo slideshows and several stories about the Chinese crew working in Japan.

“Chinese seismic workers know exactly what Japanese people feel right now. We are willing to offer assistance to Japan anytime,” the Xinhua news agency quoted Chen Jianmin, director of the China Earthquake Administration, as saying Friday in a message to his Japanese counterpart.

With all the world attention those Japanese rescue workers attracted back in 2008, there was speculation and hope that Sino-Japanese relations had turned an important corner. Yet the past three years have been marred by more spats and frayed diplomatic relations. And while the Chinese public is talking non-stop about Japan’s turmoil, powers at the top have taken a much more guarded approach to discussing the situation.

It was only at the very end of his nearly 2.5-hour press conference on Monday that Premier Wen Jiabao turned his attention to Japan. He first asked if there were Japanese journalists among the gathering of hundreds (there were), then said he didn’t want to take a question from them, but had something to say. Wen offered China’s “deep condolences” to Japan.

Wen meets with reporters once every year, at the close of the National People’s Congress. He takes a pre-screened selection of questions from journalists from China and other countries. This year no Japanese reporter was called on. Instead, Wen made a statement.

“China is also a country prone to earthquake disasters and we fully empathize with how they feel now,” Wen said. “We will provide more as Japan needs it and we want to continue to help as necessary.”

China has pledged roughly $150,000 in aid to Japan for recovery. Yet it remains to be seen whether rocky relations will return once the crisis abates.

Chu Xiaobo, a Sino-Japan relations expert at Peking University, said symbolic actions — like Japan’s aid in Sichuan in 2008 — can help the overall relationship.

Three years ago, he said, “common people in China were touched by their actions, and this greatly changed Japan's image in some Chinese peoples' mind. Obviously it was a good interaction.”

Now the same might come of China’s extension of aid to Japan.

“I think action like this has a positive impact on relations between countries,” said Chu. “Humans have become more dependent on one another and bilateral relations are not just about politics and economics anymore. It’s about connections on many deeper levels.”

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