TOKYO (Reuters) - Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao went for a jog in Japan’s capital on Monday morning on a visit the two nations hope will boost ties that have weakened despite the ambitions of Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama.
The two biggest Asian economies have settled into a steady relationship since 2006, when they set aside years of rancour centred on Japan’s wartime occupation of Asia.
But their huge and growing bilateral trade, worth $238.7 billion last year, has failed to erase unease over China’s military modernisation, a territorial dispute over gas fields under the East China Sea and strings of small islands, and Beijing’s reluctance to turn on North Korea.
Premier Wen took a break from this heavy diplomatic fare on Monday morning to put on a black track suit and jog through leafy Yoyogi Park in Tokyo, in a carefully managed effort to show a softer side of China to the occasionally wary Japanese.
Accompanied by panting guards and reporters, he greeted sometimes startled residents who were jogging or walking dogs, and joined some to practice traditional Chinese Taichi exercises.
“Do you know who I am?,” he asked some of them. They did.
“The Chinese people send their greetings,” he told others.
North Korea is likely to feature in Wen’s talks with Hatoyama later on Monday. The Japanese Prime Minister has firmly backed South Korea’s contentions that the North torpedoed its naval ship, the Cheonan, in March, killing 46 sailors, and that the United Nations Security Council should censure Pyongyang.
China shares long-standing bonds with its communist neighbour North Korea, and Beijing has been determinedly noncommittal about whether Pyongyang was behind the sinking.
As a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, China has the power to veto any proposed resolution or statement.
Wen instead used a three-way summit with Hatoyama and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak to urge them to calm tensions over the ship sinking and avoid any clashes.
“The pressing task now is to respond appropriately to the serious effects of the Cheonan incident, to steadily reduce tensions, and especially to avoid a clash,” Wen said at the end of the summit at Seogwipo, a honeymoon resort on the South Korean island of Jeju.
Wen’s three-day visit to Japan, which began on Sunday, appears unlikely to bring any shift in China’s position.
But any signs from Wen that his government is distancing itself from North Korea would be a welcome trophy for Hatoyama.
For Hatoyama, the visit comes amid domestic gloom, since many voters have grown disenchanted with his government, and may act as a reminder that China could soon displace Japan as the world’s second-biggest economy, trailing only the United States.
The Japanese premier fired a junior coalition partner from his cabinet on Friday for resisting a U.S.-Japan deal on a Marine airbase, while his Democratic Party is struggling in the polls ahead of an upper house election expected in July.
Hatoyama came to office less than a year ago, vowing a more balanced relationship with the United States and closer ties with China and other Asian powers. He also pleased Japan’s neighbours by saying he will not visit Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, seen as a symbol of Japan’s past militarism.
But sources of discord remain. China’s increasing naval activities in the seas near Japan have made Tokyo nervous.
Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada told his Chinese counterpart, Yang Jiechi, in mid-May that Beijing should commit itself to cut, or at least not increase, the number of its nuclear weapons, prompting an angry rebuttal.
The two nations have also been at odds over China’s exploration for natural gas in the East China Sea, in areas that Japan says could impinge on gas fields under its maritime jurisdiction. In June 2008, they reached a broad agreement intended to solve the row by jointly developing the fields. Informal talks have recently started, but progress has been slow.
Those disputes, however, are likely to remain muffled by economics. China -- already Japan’s biggest trading partner -- replaced the United States as Japan’s top export destination for the first time in 2009.
Editing by Linda Sieg and Hugh Lawson
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.