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Japanese PM Warms Ties on China Visit

Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda has wrapped up a four-day visit to China that helped soften historically tense relations between the countries. Kate Woodsome has more on the significance of the visit from VOA's Asia News Center in Hong Kong.

Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda ended his trip to China with a visit to the birthplace of the Chinese philosopher Confucius.

The ancient sage is revered in China and Japan, and aides say Mr. Fukuda's outing Sunday aimed to highlight the cultural similarities between the two powers - a key message of Mr. Fukuda's visit.

Both sides are hailing the visit as a success - a significant step forward after China cut high-level talks with Japan under the premiership of Junichiro Koizumi from 2001 to 2006.

Mr. Koizumi angered China with his pilgrimages to a controversial shrine to World War Two veterans and war criminals. Mr. Fukuda says he will not visit the shrine while in office.

Li Mingjiang, a China expert at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, says Mr. Fukuda is making the right moves to redefine Japan's relationship with China.

"It's a step that has the potential to initiate new ground - strategic, political ground - for further growth in the bilateral relationship," said Li.

In talks with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and President Hu Jintao, Mr. Fukuda did not sign any major deals or solve a long-running dispute over a natural gas field in the East China Sea. However, he did lay the groundwork for Mr. Hu to visit Japan in 2008.

Mr. Fukuda made a big effort to warm relations with his Chinese counterparts. He chatted with school children, visited a Toyota factory, and even donned a baseball uniform to play catch with Premier Wen.

Mr. Fukuda described his visit as "very meaningful", and said the two countries can achieve more if they cooperate than if they confront each other.

Analyst Li Mingjiang agrees that both China and Japan have a lot to gain from improved relations.

"China, of course, needs a stable regional environment in order for the leaders to focus on the domestic economic development. And for Japan, because China is a rising power, it does not want to antagonize or create problems with China in this moment," said Li Mingjiang.

Japan, with its high-tech, capital-intensive economy, is China's largest trade partner. Li says the countries' economic interdependence demands stable political and security relations.

He says militarily, the countries also could benefit from improved trust. Japan wants China's support on North Korean issues, while China wants Japan to ease off its military cooperation with the United States.

The next round of diplomacy could come as soon as the spring, if President Hu follows through with an intended visit to Japan.