In the last two weeks of November Japan's Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi, met briefly with Chinese President Hu Jintao at the APEC conference in Chile, and then with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao at the ASEAN summit in Laos. Despite booming trade and ever-increasing economic ties, these were the first high-level political meetings for over a year and neither encounter made any significant progress towards addressing grievances ranging from China's new-found thirst for energy and resources to atrocities committed before and during WWII.
During the meeting in Laos, China's Premier Wen quoted an old Chinese saying: "Let him who tied a bell on the tiger take it off." The problem is neither side can agree on who the bell belongs to. The Chinese Communist Party asserts that the main stumbling block in bilateral relations is Prime Minister Koizumi's insistence on yearly visits to the Yasukuni shrine, which honors Japan's war dead including Japan's wartime Prime Minister, General Hideki Tojo, and other Class-A war criminals.
Many ordinary Japanese are baffled by China's continued obsession with history and public opinion is evenly divided over whether Koizumi should continue his shrine visits. Meanwhile, Japanese conservatives say that China is politicizing an internal Japanese matter in order to score political points and improve its bargaining power as it continues to assert itself as the rising hegemon in the region.
Underlying viewpoints in both countries is the proliferation of an ugly and vituperative nationalism. Many Chinese suspect an enduring Japanese attitude of superiority toward other Asians and especially Chinese, which is accentuated by the problems of a stagnant economy and a right-wing swing amongst voters.
Japanese argue that in China a culture of victimization is cultivated by state media and education in order to encourage patriotism and nationalism in a shaky political environment and that Chinese identity is now irrevocably entwined with being anti-Japanese. They point to events such as the riots that occurred during the Asian Cup soccer tournament earlier this year in which Japanese fans and players were attacked following China's loss to Japan.
But probably at the heart of the matter and the reason that grievances which have festered for over half a century are coming to the fore now is that China is inexorably on the rise while Japan is generally considered to be in its twilight years economically and in terms of regional power-broking.
In the trade arena China has taken the initiative in signing free trade agreements with neighbors like ASEAN while Japan has not even started preliminary negotiations. There has also been a lot of talk about an East Asian or even Pan-Asian alliance and forum that would not include the US and would implicitly acknowledge China as the chief regional power.
China's thirst for energy has created the most friction. China has started drilling for natural gas in the disputed border area near the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands that China, Taiwan and Japan each claim as its own territory. And earlier this year China and Japan found themselves competing for access to vast reserves of Siberian oil. Perhaps it was just coincidence, but after Japan appeared to win the bidding, its proposal to build a highspeed rail link between Shanghai and Beijing was rejected.
Japan has never properly apologized for its wartime atrocities and there is a significant section of the population that denies events such as the 1937 Nanjing massacre even occurred. Conservative politicians say that for Koizumi to back down over his shrine visits would put Japan in a weak bargaining position with a country with clear territorial ambitions.
China has since been called a threat to Japan's security in a new defense policy document, the first time in the modern era that Tokyo has named a specific nation as a threat to its peace and stability.
On November 10 a Chinese submarine entered Japanese waters near the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, resulting in a halfhearted apology from China. Subsequent media play provided an example of the kind of friction that occurs when these two powers rub up against each other.
But with booming China taking much of the credit for Japan's current economic revival, Koizumi faces tremendous pressure from Japanese business to improve relations. China is now Japan's second largest trade partner and Japan is China's largest source of imports and third largest trade partner.
China's spectacular economic rise has also raised questions over Japan's continuing aid programs, initiated in 1979 partly as reparation for wartime atrocities and partly to gain a foothold in China's otherwise closed market. Japanese politicians calling for an end to assistance stirred a flurry of likeminded editorials in late November. Even Chinese leaders acknowledge the incongruity of a nation with superpower ambitions receiving aid, but they object to Japan's threatening tone about ending long-running assistance.
Friction with Japan is certain to grow as China grows. With past and more recent issues still unresolved, each must ensure no new bells get hung on the tiger.