May 6, 2008 / 3:07 AM / 12 years ago

China's Hu urges close Japan ties, offers two pandas

(Updates with confirmation of offer of pandas)

By Linda Sieg

TOKYO, May 6 (Reuters) - Chinese President Hu Jintao lauded closer cooperation with Japan — and offered a pair of pandas as a friendly gesture — after arriving on Tuesday for a state visit intended to nurture trust between the wary Asian powers.

The state visit, the second ever by a top Chinese leader, comes as China seeks to soothe international concern over Tibetan unrest, which has threatened to mar Beijing’s Olympic Games in August.

Hu was greeted at the airport by senior Japanese officials and flag-waving well-wishers, mostly Chinese, but in the centre of the capital, more than 1,000 protesters marched peacefully chanting "Human rights for Tibet".

Trucks carrying right-wing activists roamed the city blaring anti-China slogans and Japan’s national anthem. Some 7,000 police were deployed amid concern over protests by the activists, who see China as a threat, but there were no reports of scuffles.

China wants to promote an image as a friendly neighbour after years of feuding over Japan’s handling of its wartime aggression.

Hu, who has stressed forward-looking goals for his five days of summitry and ceremony, said stable and friendly ties were good for both countries, whose economies are increasingly intertwined.

"Relations between the two countries now have new opportunities for further development," he said in a written statement upon arrival in Tokyo. "I hope through this visit to increase mutual trust and strengthen friendship."

In a gesture that might help woo a sceptical Japanese public, Hu offered to give Japan two pandas for research purposes, Japan’s foreign ministry said in a statement, following the recent death of popular Ling Ling panda at a Tokyo zoo.

He made the offer during an informal dinner with Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda at a Tokyo restaurant with historical links to Sun Yat-sen, considered the "father" of modern China.

OPPORTUNITIES, ANXIETIES

China replaced the United States as Japan’s top trade partner last year, with two-way trade worth $236.6 billion, up 12 percent from 2006.

"As two important powers, if China and Japan can coordinate and cooperate more, and together promote regional economic integration and respond together to international financial, energy, environmental and a series of other challenges, that would be an excellent supplement to our two countries overall trade and economic relations," Chinese ambassador to Japan Cui Tiankai said in a recent interview on Chinese state TV.

But Beijing’s expanding diplomatic and military reach has also stirred anxieties in Japan over disputed energy resources, military power and the safety standards of Chinese exports.

"Although the iceberg between China and Japan has melted, fully warming relations require further efforts from both sides," a commentator wrote in China’s People’s Daily.

The political climax of Hu’s visit is set to be a summit on Wednesday with Fukuda, when they hope to unveil a blueprint for managing future ties.

Beijing and Tokyo are keen to avoid a rerun of former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin’s visit to Japan a decade ago, which left a chill after he delivered pointed lectures on Japan’s 1931-1945 invasion and occupation of China.

Sino-Japanese ties chilled during Junichiro Koizumi’s 2001-2006 term as prime minister over his visits to Tokyo’s Yasukuni war shrine, but tensions have eased since then.

Japanese media reports said that touchy references in the joint document to Taiwan, human rights, and Japan’s hopes for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council were still under negotiation.

The two countries are also quarrelling over the rights to gas beds beneath the East China Sea, while a row over Chinese-made dumplings laced with pesticide that made several people sick has become for some a symbol of Japanese alarm at China’s rise.

GOODWILL, NOT BREAKTHROUGHS?

Japan wants greater transparency about China’s surging defence spending, set at 418 billion yuan ($60 billion) for 2008, up 17.6 percent on 2007 and outstripping Japan’s defence budget. Foreign critics say China’s real military budget is much higher.

Tokyo wants Chinese backing for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, an issue that in 2005 fuelled anti-Japanese protests in China, where there is deep rancour over Japan’s harsh wartime occupation of much of the country.

China has pressed Japan to spell out again its stance on Taiwan, the self-ruled island that Beijing says must accept reunification. Tokyo has said it supports "one China" that includes Taiwan, which was a Japanese colony for fifty years until 1945 and keeps close ties to Japan.

Few expect big breakthroughs on specific disputes, but the two sides are keen to stress forward-looking goodwill and are to issue a joint document on fighting climate change, a key topic for Japan as host of the July G8 summit.

Hu will speak to Japanese students at Tokyo’s Waseda University and may unwind a bit by playing ping-pong with Fukuda. ($1=6.988 Yuan)

(Additional reporting by Chris Buckley and Chisa Fujioka; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)

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