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Gulf widens between Japan, China

President Hu drew a harder line last week over visits to Japan's controversial war shrine.

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A year after rocks and bottles peppered Japanese businesses and diplomatic offices in the most public anti-Japanese outbursts in urban China for decades, relations between the two largest Asian powers have, if anything, frozen further.

In a little-noticed development, Chinese leader Hu Jintao appears for the first time to be setting a clear precondition for dialogue between Japanese and Chinese leaders: the cessation of visits by Japanese leaders to Yasukuni Shrine, where 14 Japanese war criminals are enshrined. Mr. Hu gave that message to Japanese "friendship" delegations who arrived in Beijing 10 days ago, making it difficult in face-saving Asia for Japan to yield on visiting the controversial shrine. Such a policy could drive Asia's two largest nations further apart amid ever-intensifying competition for influence and resources, experts say.

Some Chinese officials privately say that anti-Japanese emotions - normally kept in check - were fanned too hotly, causing mobs in Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, and Nanjing to pelt Japanese targets last spring. Japan was preparing to bid for a seat on the UN Security Council.

Yet a year later, both sides have continued a steady stream of provocative rhetoric and acts. At a rare national press conference last month, Chinese foreign minister Li Zhaoxing quoted a German diplomat who called the Yasukuni Shrine visits "stupid and immoral." When Japan officially summoned Chinese ambassador Wang Yi the next day in Tokyo, Mr. Wang refused to go - a serious diplomatic breach.

Shinzo Abe, Japan's cabinet secretary, told Japanese reporters only last week that "China and Japan have nothing in common." Yet while Mr. Abe, the lead candidate to replace Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in September, may have targeted a home audience, his comments were the lead headline in Cankao Xiaoxi, an influential paper among Beijing elites: "Shinzo Abe dares to defame China as damaging Asia's stability."

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