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Chinese Warship Sets Out for Landmark Port Call to Japan

A Chinese navy warship has left port for a groundbreaking visit to Japan, as part of a bilateral military exchange. The voyage is a sign of the warming relationship between the two countries, as Claudia Blume reports from VOA's Asia News Center in Hong Kong.

The missile destroyer Shenzhen left its base in the southern Chinese port of Zhanjiang on Wednesday and is scheduled to arrive in Japan next week for a four-day visit. It is the first time a warship of China's People's Liberation Army is making a port call to Japan.

Under a meeting of the two countries' defense ministers in August, China and Japan agreed to enhance military exchanges in order to promote mutual trust. Japan is expected to reciprocate the visit at a later time. The agreement was a sign that ties between the two countries have grown warmer in the past year.

Those ties had become distinctly frosty during the tenure of Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. This was largely due to Koizumi's repeated visits to Tokyo's Yasukuni war shrine, where several war criminals are among those honored. China, along with other of Japan's neighbors, considered the visits a sign that Japan had not renounced its militaristic past.

Tomohito Shinoda, a professor of political sciences at Tokyo's International University, says Japan's relationship with China improved vastly when Shinzo Abe succeeded Mr. Koizumi as prime minister last year.

"Drastic change was made under Abe administration when the prime minister, Abe, told the Chinese government that he is not going to publicly go to the Yasukuni Shrine," explains Shinoda. "China really wanted to improve relationship with Japan - therefore they showed that Abe's attitude differentiated strongly from Koizumi's attitude."

Yasuo Fukuda, who took over from Mr. Abe in September, is an avid supporter of strong ties with China.

Shinoda says that although relations have improved, Japan has been concerned about China's increased military spending in recent years. "Obviously China is expanding its military capability, especially its naval capability," adds Shinoda. "And also their missiles against Taiwan and the Taiwan Straits is obviously a very unstable factor in the Western Pacific area."

The Shenzhen, which was commissioned in 1998, is one of the largest surface warships China has built, and is itself an example of the country's expanding military capability. Shinoda says he hopes the port call by the ship will be a first step towards greater transparency by China's military.