QUFU, China (Reuters) - Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda concluded a feel-good visit to China on Sunday with a stop at the birthplace of Confucius, but the outlook for better relations could be dampened by his dwindling domestic clout.
Fukuda, whose father clinched a landmark peace treaty with Beijing as prime minister in 1978, received red-carpet hospitality from Chinese leaders, but was unable to settle a bitter row over natural resources in the East China Sea.
“My visit to China this time was very meaningful. I had in-depth discussions with Chinese leaders,” Fukuda told reporters after visiting Qufu in northeastern China, the birthplace of Confucius.
The ancient sage is revered in Japan as well as China.
“There will be nothing good for the region and the world unless Japan and China have cooperative relations.”
During the four-day trip, Fukuda spoke to students, chatted with Chinese workers at a Toyota factory and tossed a baseball with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao.
“The visit is affecting ties positively, although it was not a home-run,” said Takeshi Inoguchi, a political science professor at Tokyo’s Chuo University.
Japan’s Asahi newspaper predicted Fukuda’s China summit would eventually help to resolve pending issues.
“There is no need to become pessimistic. Of course one cannot solve difficult issues with just words,” Asahi said in editorial.
The English-language China Daily also sounded an optimistic note.
“As bilateral relations turn for the better, the government has been going out of its way to grant preferential treatment to Fukuda,” the paper said in editorial.
But Japanese media and analysts said the friendly mood contrasted with a lack of substantive progress on sticky feuds.
The two countries are locked in a long-running dispute over how to exploit natural gas in the East China Sea as they differ on where the dividing line between their exclusive economic zones in the area should lie.
“The gas field issue is one of the biggest concerns for the two countries, but their leaders failed to resolve it,” said Yasuhiko Yoshida, a professor of international politics at Osaka University of Economics and Law.
Japan is worried that China, piping gas from an area close to what Tokyo sees as its own economic zone, could siphon resources from geological structures that stretch into the Japanese zone.
Referring to the gas dispute, Japan’s conservative Yomiuri newspaper said:
“The fact that Tokyo and Beijing have had such trouble reaching agreement on an issue that impinges on national interests exemplifies the difficulties of building a mutually beneficial relationship.”
The leaders of Asia’s two largest economies also failed to clear the way to resolve other festering feuds, including mutual mistrust over military build-ups.
With Fukuda on shaky political ground at home, analysts said China was wary of making too much haste in forging closer ties.
“It is difficult for China to move ahead to clinch big deals because Beijing is not sure about the future of Fukuda’s political base at home,” Inoguchi said.
Voter support for Fukuda, who took office in September after his predecessor abruptly resigned, has fallen below 35 percent in recent media polls from an initial high of 60 percent.
The government’s mishandling of millions of public pension records, a bribery scandal involving a former top defense ministry official and a protracted legal battle over compensating hepatitis C patients who were infected through tainted blood products, have hurt Fukuda’s image.
“He has his back against the wall at home and therefore he is eager to score diplomatic points,” Yoshida said.
Sino-Japanese ties have warmed over the past year after a chill during the 2001-2006 term of Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, who made repeated visits to Yasukuni shrine, seen by many in Asia as a symbol of Japan’s past militarism.
Fukuda, 71, has vowed not to visit the shrine, where World War Two leaders convicted as war criminals are honored along with war dead, while he is in office.
Additional reporting by George Nishiyama in TOKYO and Lindsay Beck in BEIJING and Beijing newsroom; Editing by Jerry Norton