Whether the March 11 earthquake and tsunami could turn bilateral relations in a positive direction has been the subject of some discussion.
Wang Lixiong, a Chinese writer from Beijing, was in Japan ― on his first visit to the nation ― on March 10, for meet-and-greet events with readers of his work.
After the disaster hit the next day, Wang watched developments in Tokyo, the Kansai region and other parts of Japan over the following two weeks as the nation dealt with the emergency situation. Wang was impressed.
“I hadn’t imagined Japanese people would be so steady in the event of a disaster. It’s admirable,” he said.
Wang reflected on major emergencies in China, such as the 1976 Tangshan Earthquake and an outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003.
In China, where there are huge socioeconomic divides and many other social problems, riots and demonstrations have become more frequent occurrences, and maintaining social order has become a great challenge for its political leaders.
From the Chinese perspective, the self-discipline and order on display in Japan was astonishing.
The tone of Chinese media coverage of Japan immediately after the disaster suggested opinions of this nation were being reevaluated. For example, the Beijing News carried an article pondering why the Japanese public had not panicked.
Chinese sentiment toward Japan was also improved by the story of Chinese trainees who were in Onagawacho, Miyagi Prefecture, on March 11 and were rescued by a Japanese man ― who soon after lost his own life in the tsunami.
On March 18, Chinese President Hu Jintao visited the Japanese Embassy in Beijing to express his condolences for the disaster, a sign ties with Japan were on the mend.
According to an online survey conducted by Soken Inc., a Dentsu group company, in late March, a majority of Chinese respondents said they viewed Japanese people as “orderly,” “having solidarity,” “patient” and “cool-headed.”
A diplomatic source in Beijing said: “An overwhelming majority of Chinese people are supporting Japan. China seems to have been reminded of the fact that Japan is its neighbor. I hope this won’t be just a short-term change.”
However, public sentiment in China toward Japan has become increasingly negative as the lingering crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant continued.
When highly radioactive water was discharged into the sea from the crippled plant, the Chinese Foreign Ministry pressed Japan to “take action in line with international laws.”
People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, slammed Tokyo’s handling of the crisis, calling on Japan to keep its neighbors informed about what was going on.
Meanwhile, Chinese tourists have shied away from Japan since the crisis while public trust in Japanese food product safety in China has been shaken.
Uncertainties surrounding Japan, however, are likely to have a significant negative impact on the Chinese economy. Beijing is therefore apparently hoping that Japan will recover from the disaster as soon as possible. At the same time, it appears to want to take advantage of this situation to improve bilateral relations with Japan.
When Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, who is expected to succeed President Hu Jintao, met with the Japanese delegation of the League of Japanese and Chinese Lawmakers on May 4, he expressed willingness to improve mutual public attitudes. To celebrate the 40th anniversary of normalization of the two countries’ diplomatic relations next year, Xi urged the lawmakers to make efforts to create a friendly environment between the countries.
The remarks indicated Beijing is inclined to seek stable ties between Japan and China as it prepares for a leadership change.
As Japan and China have had nagging disputes over such issues as the Senkaku Islands and gas field exploitation in the East China Sea, China’s sentiment toward Japan is not likely to improve quickly. But the Japanese government should rebuild both domestic and foreign affairs comprehensively in the process of the nation’s recovery. From a strategic point of view, Japan needs to consider building the Japan-China relationship under new strategic circumstances.
By Akira Fujino
Akira Fujino is a senior writer of the Yomiuri Shimbun. ― Ed.
(The Yomiuri Shimbun/Asia News Network)