Flexibility key to settle islands row
Since mid-January, tensions over the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku islands in the East China Sea have noticeably declined, largely as a result of conciliatory words and actions by Japanese political figures visiting China.The first to visit was by Yukio Hatoyama of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, who was prime minister in 2009-2010 and who had advocated closer ties with China while in office. Hatoyama took issue with Japan's position of denying that there is a territorial dispute, saying "if you look at history, there is a dispute".
The former leader also visited a memorial in Nanjing honouring those who were killed in 1937 and apologised for "the crimes that Japanese soldiers committed during wartime".
Hatoyama's visit was widely publicised in the Chinese media, which published pictures of him and his wife at the Nanjing Massacre Memorial bowing in silent tribute to the dead.
The normally nationalistic Chinese newspaper Global Times declared editorially: "Hatoyama's words and deeds these days show that in spite of the tough environment, forces which are friendly to China have not disappeared."
Shortly after Hatoyama's departure from China, Natsuo Yamaguchi, leader of the New Komeito Party - a coalition partner of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party - arrived in China, carrying with him a letter from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for Xi Jinping, the new leader of the Communist Party of China.
Yamaguchi was received by Xi on January 25, and, aside from passing over the letter from the prime minister, he also suggested that the territorial dispute be shelved for now and to let future generations deal with the issue.
Xi no doubt knew that the Japanese politician was paraphrasing the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping who, while visiting Tokyo in 1978, famously said, "Our generation is not wise enough to find common language on this question. Our next generation will certainly be wiser. They will certainly find a solution acceptable to all."
Alas, no solution is yet in sight and the best policy is to put the dispute back on the shelf.
Yamaguchi also suggested a summit meeting between Abe and Xi, and the Chinese leader responded that he would consider it seriously if there was a "proper environment".
Xi also said that China wanted to promote a "strategic relationship of mutual benefit" with Japan.
Soon after, a third influential Japanese political figure arrived, another former prime minister, Tomiichi Murayama, whose visit, like the other two, contributed to the establishment of an improved environment.
It was Murayama who, while in power, issued an apology on historical issues that was widely hailed in Asia.
The visits by these three Japanese figures have contributed to a lowering of tensions, making it possible to envisage a thaw in China-Japan relations.
What is significant is that these three men were all invited by Beijing, which of course had a good idea of what they were likely to say and do. That is to say, without denigrating their contribution to the lessening of the impasse, the improved atmosphere of the last few weeks was largely the result of initiatives taken by China.
Japan, too, clearly wants to keep tensions low. Abe has now made it clear that he endorses the Murayama statement although there is still some talk of making a new statement "suitable to the 21st century". But there is unlikely to be any backtracking.
It is imperative at this stage that both Japan and China recognise the delicate political environment in the other's country. Each should rein in its own aggressive nationalistic forces.
It is also necessary for each side not to say or do anything that may be humiliating or embarrassing to the other side. Threatening to fire "warning shots", for example, is not helpful.
A lot of damage has been done to China-Japan relations. It will take time for the relationship to heal.
When Abe became prime minister for the first time in 2006, he went to China on his first overseas visit to mend relations damaged during the premiership of Junichiro Koizumi, who insisted on visiting the Yasukuni Shrine each year.
This led to a dramatic improvement in relations, with Premier Wen Jiabao making an "ice-melting" visit to Japan in 2007, followed by a presidential visit by Hu Jintao the following year.
Another China-Japan summit will be indispensable if ties are to be rebuilt. This, however, cannot take place until the necessary groundwork has been laid. Both sides will have to work hard at this. And flexibility should be the watchword.