The change began with Abe's own surprise trip to Beijing last October, which established lines of communication that had been all but ruined by former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's repeated trips to the Yasukuni Shrine, a Shinto memorial to Japan's war dead viewed by many nations as an irredeemable symbol of Japanese imperialism. For Abe, who had a nationalist reputation as a legislator, the move assuaged worries that ties with China would further degrade under his administration. For the leaders in Beijing, Abe's visit was an opportunity to show that China could be forward thinking, and not just a prisoner of history. Since then the two nations have toned down the hostile rhetoric and found patches of common groundlike stopping North Korea's nuclear program. The good vibes culminated with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao's trip to Japan on April 11 to 13, the first high-level Chinese visit in nearly seven years. But while it was all smiles and bows in Tokyo this week, China and Japan remain wary rivals at best. "The two sides realized they hadn't talked with each other for years, and that simply wasn't sustainable," says Malcolm Cook, director of the Asia Pacific Program at Sydney's Lowy Institute for International Policy. "There isn't much more than that right now."
That the superficial rapprochement between China and Japan seems so momentous is a measure of just how far apart the neighbors have drifted. They still face a host of problems, from disputed borders to deep-seated animosity over the memory of World War II. Take security. Abe has upgraded Japan's Defense Agency to a Cabinet-level ministry, sped deployment of American ballistic missile-defense systems on Japanese soil, and is pushing for a revision of the country's pacifist constitution. Last month, after Japan signed a defense agreement with Australia, Abe spoke of the two democracies' "shared destiny." And given Japan's flirtations with another powerful Asian democracy (India), you can see why Beijing might think it's on the wrong side of a Japanese containment policy.
Tokyo, for its part, points to China's rapidly increasing military spending, which rose nearly 18% to reach $45 billion officially this yeareven as Japan's own defense budget, for all of Abe's posturing, has remained virtually flat. The point is that while both nations want what one Tokyo official calls a "future-oriented relationship," the future will likely find them on opposite strategic sides. That doesn't mean they can't be good neighborsgood fences and all thatbut we can expect friction.
Such a confrontation occurred in 2005 when the two governments faced off over potentially rich underwater natural-gas and oil fields in the East China Sea. The deposits lie inside maritime territory claimed by both countries, and the dispute has so far prevented either from tapping the oil and gas. Joint development is the only realistic solution, but with the two competing over everything from natural resources to global influence, neither can afford to back down. "Both sides have face at stake," says Ryosei Kokubun, director of the Institute of East Asian Studies at Tokyo's Keio University.
Beijing and Tokyo should focus on confidence-building measures in areas where both can winlike the environment. China's rapid industrialization and inefficient energy use have created a horrific pollution problem. Japan has coped with similar problems in the past to become one of the world's most efficient energy users; its expertise in this field could be of great benefit to China. Expanding the two nations' already robust economic tiesbilateral trade passed $200 billion last yearwill bind them further. "Japanese officials realize that China is Japan's economic future," says Jeff Kingston, a professor of history at Temple University in Tokyo. "The mutual interest is real."
Mutual interest may not be enough. Though China has downplayed Abe's recent attempts to rewrite Japan's wartime history, Yasukuni remains a redline for Beijing. Eventually Abe will come under pressure from his conservative base to stand up to China, as Koizumi did, and visit Yasukuni. At the same time the Chinese government could face anger at home should it be seen as playing too nice with Tokyo. The past is never really past in Asia, but Japan and China have enough genuine challenges in front of them without being weighed down by what's behind.