But the mood has shifted dramatically since Abe Shinzo became prime minister of Japan last September and he put restoration of good relations with China and South Korea at the top of his policy agenda. He has largely succeeded: He visited Beijing and Seoul immediately upon taking office and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao returned the courtesy with a recent visit of his own to Japan.
If Abe's visit was intended to break the ice in the bilateral relationship, Wen's trip was designed to "melt the ice." By virtually all accounts it was a success. His outreach to ordinary Japanese demonstrated a real desire to put relations back on course. His speech to a joint session of the Diet hit all the right marks, acknowledging Japanese leaders' acceptance of history and their taking responsibility for the past. He thanked Japan for its assistance in China's development. Most significant, the speech was broadcast in China, making it clear to ordinary Chinese that their leadership wants better relations with Tokyo.
The volte-face is the result of shifts in both Tokyo and Beijing. While Abe has not given the Chinese the pledge they seek to not visit Yasukuni Shrine during his tenure, he has made it clear that he understands their concerns. China has subtly shifted its position to accommodate Abe and not demand that statement.
A modus vivendi may have been reached, but the real issues that divide the two counties persist. China's rise unsettles many Japanese, just as Japan's pursuit of a more prominent international political and security role unnerves many Chinese. The two countries have territorial disputes, conflicting priorities over issues such as Iran and North Korea, and they are rivals for regional leadership. The relationship remains fragile.
US-China-Japan cooperation can help build the trust that is needed in China-Japan relations. With the various sets of bilateral relationships strong and forward looking, Washington, Tokyo, and Beijing have a unique opportunity to build genuinely trilateral relations and, in particular, transform Chinese perceptions of the US-Japan alliance.
To that end, the three countries should commence a senior-level strategic dialogue that explores the three countries' interests and concerns in Asia and other regions of the world. Pacific Forum CSIS last week held the 11th round of a track-two trilateral effort that examines mutual concerns and visions. Participants agreed that an official trilateral dialogue is long overdue. The three countries' policymakers should heed these calls and establish a mechanism for discussion and policy coordination.
In addition to senior-level discussions, policy planners can take up specific issues and develop a concrete agenda aimed at building habits of cooperation and reducing suspicion. There is a long list of nontraditional security issues that the three governments can cooperate on: energy, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, disaster relief, aging societies, maritime security, are just a start. The key is developing specific proposals to work on together and producing results.
A central issue concerns how the US and Japan, as allies, engage China. Chinese suspicions of the two countries' intentions are deep-rooted. China sees virtually every US and Japanese security policy decision through a very narrow prism. Missile defense, Tokyo's discussion of acquisition of power projection capabilities (most recently in the context of the purchase of the F22), the recent Japan-Australia security declaration, the call for an alliance of democracies, Foreign Minister Aso Taro's talk of an Arc of Freedom and Prosperity, the inclusion of Taiwan in the 2005 "2+2" Declaration – all are seen in Beijing as aimed at China and setting the stage for its containment. The two countries should engage China and discuss the complex changes in the security environment that have driven these policy initiatives. China may or