China and Japan, since the second world war, have had relations ranging anywhere from cool to ice cold. Chinese citizens have an extremely poor opinion of Japan, and occasionally boycott Japanese goods when the Japanese make tactless symbolic moves, like former Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi's frequent visits to a Shinto shrine housing convicted war criminals of World War II, or Japan's 2005 bid for a UN Security Council seat. Japan has had great trouble trying to reconcile its 20th Century history with China and Korea, and both states have long seen Japan with great skepticism. Despite large and growing trade between Japan and China, the two states have simply been unable to get along.
But recently, Chinese and Japanese leaders have begun a (hopefully) long-term effort to try and improve their relationship. The move was made possible by the replacement of Prime Minister Abe with Fukuda , but was by the initiative of Chinese President Hu, who recently visited Japan in the first Presidential-level visit in over a decade to deliver a gift of pandas, play ping-pong with Fukuda, and conduct more serious diplomatic talk. The results, while infantile, have been excellent.
China's opinion of Japan has been extremely sour since World War II--certainly, there was good reason for it to be for some time; Japan's invasion of China was brutal and violent, and left millions of Chinese dead. But why has Japan not been able to reconcile this past, unlike Germany, who gets along quite well with its European neighbors? Part of the problem has been Japan's tendency to hide under the umbrella of the US-Japan Alliance; without strong and independent foreign policy stances, Japan has not been able to convincingly show a significant and lasting change away from its older imperial tendencies. Furthermore, controversial history books in some Japanese schools have a strikingly unapologetic stance on the second world war, and right-wing shrines (and other organizations) have glorified the history of many rather bad folks in the second world war, like Tojo. These issues have kept its East Asian neighbors skeptical, worried, and bitter--especially China.
But good relations between these countries is simply a good idea. High trade without strong diplomatic relations risks a souring (like if one industry's workers start losing jobs due to low tariffs), and certainly, both countries would benefit from lower military spending to hedge against each other. And so, Fukada and Hu finally managed to make a visit to talk turkey.
Hu has the advantage of a state-run media system, which has begun to drop good words about Japan into daily newspapers--Chinese popular sentiment towards Japan may improve if this campaign continues. But more importantly, China and Japan signed a joint Communique that looks to strengthen economic and political ties with lowering trade barriers, increasing diplomatic exchange volume, and increasing efforts for exchange student access. In addition, the Chinese and Japanese will work together to improve relations with North Korea.
Other East Asian states are seeing this visit with great hope for a warmer and more prosperous East Asia. Asia Times is cautiously acknowledging a "warm spring," and The Australian is boldly supporting that the visit is a "historic point." A Sino-Japanese friendship is likely to improve confidence in the future stability of East Asia, and encourage high-risk ventures like gas and oil mining in the South China Sea, and increased cross-national investment.
This thaw is particularly useful for Japan, whose economy has struggled for the past 10 years after decades of "miracle" economics. If it can shed its "pariah" status in East Asia and increase trade, investment, and joint development, it might be able to get its economy back on track and take off along with its East Asian neighbors.
For the United States, the friendship is likely to make it less relevant in East Asian affairs, and is likely to give China a greater mandate to lead. It seems East Asian states are, one by one, lining up behind China's growing leadership, and placing their bets that China of the future is going to continue to encourage peace, regional prosperity, and non-intervention in domestic affairs. If East Asia is right, these bets are going to pay off big in the next few decades, likely turning East Asia into the world's foremost industrial powerhouse.