BEIJING (Reuters) - A small group of Chinese rescuers arrived in Japan on Sunday to search for survivors from a massive earthquake and tsunami, barely six months after Asia’s two largest economies faced off in a bitter territorial dispute.
Setting aside the acrimony over Japan’s wartime atrocities that underpins widespread Chinese public distrust of Japan more than six decades after the end of World War Two, Beijing has wasted no time in expressing sympathy for the disaster.
Even China’s defense ministry, which normally wastes little time reminding people of past heroics in fighting the Japanese, has offered to assist, via a rare telephone call from China’s Defense Minister Liang Guanglie to his Japanese counterpart.
“Despite suffering an earthquake in Yunnan province on March 10, which the Chinese government and people have busied themselves in offering relief for, they have also unhesitatingly stretched out a helping hand to Japan’s disaster zone,” Chinese academic Liu Jiangyong wrote in a front page commentary in Communist Party mouthpiece the People’s Daily.
The small Yunnan quake killed about 25 people.
“We can never forget the aid provided by Japan during 2008’s enormous Wenchuan earthquake in Sichuan province,” Liu, an expert on Japan at Beijing’s elite Tsinghua University, wrote in the paper’s overseas edition.
“China will not decline to shoulder its burdens as a neighbor.”
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao is expected to use his annual news conference on Monday to publicly express Beijing’s condolences.
In 2008, Chinese President Hu Jintao himself thanked Japanese rescue teams that had searched for survivors of the devastating Sichuan earthquake which killed more than 80,000 people, though the Japanese team actually ended up rescuing no one.
Respectful treatment of the corpses found by the Japanese in Sichuan won them praise in Chinese media and Internet chatrooms, helping warm often frosty Sino-Japanese relations.
A litany of issues characterise China’s difficult ties with Japan, from spats over Chinese limits on rare earth exports to Japanese concerns about Beijing’s growing defense budget.
Relations chilled again last September after a Chinese fishing trawler collided with Japanese patrol vessels near a group of disputed islands in the East China Sea, which are close to potentially vast oil and gas reserves.
But China moved quickly to send aid to Japan following the earthquake. Its 15-member rescue team headed immediately to the main quake zone upon landing in Tokyo on a special chartered flight to help search for survivors, according to state news agency Xinhua.
China’s state-run television news has given over hours of live coverage to the disaster, largely displacing its dry reports on the ongoing meeting of China’s rubber stamp parliament.
While some nationalists have voiced satisfaction online at the sight of China’s neighbor stricken by catastrophe, grief and sympathy have been much more common reactions, sometimes mixed with a political message.
“Japan has suffer cataclysmic losses in this earthquake, and continuing disasters are beyond calculations,” said one message on the popular online forum hosted by the People’s Daily website (www.people.com.cn).
“I hope that Japan will be a neighbourly partner and attend to its own business without engaging in needless provocations.”
China is Japan’s biggest trade partner and a severe blow to the Japanese economy would also hurt China’s exports. Trade between the two nations grew by 22.3 percent in 2010, reaching 26.5 trillion yen, according to the Japan External Trade Organization.
Still, China has not always reacted with such alacrity in response to disasters in neighbours with whom it has had a testy historical relationship.
After an earthquake rocked central Taiwan in 1999, killing some 2,300 people, Taipei accused Beijing of trying to assert sovereignty over the island by obliging foreign countries to seek permission from China before sending aid.
Taiwan’s then-Foreign Minister Jason Hu said China had violated humanitarian principles and was “sprinkling salt on the wound.” China in turn blasted Taiwan officials for “distorting facts” and “inventing rumours.”
Additional reporting by Chris Buckley, editing by Andrew Marshall