Sino-Japanese relations - already at something of a low - did not need a disputed goal by Japan and some ugly scenes after the final whistle to make matters worse.

 

The Japanese ambassador's car was stoned by Chinese fans after the 3-1 victory, while Japanese television showed pictures of Chinese burning Japan's hinomaru flag and riot police struggling to contain angry mobs of supporters.

 

No one predicts that on 7 August match might directly trigger armed clashes between the two nations - although Honduras and El Salvador set a precedent on 1969 by fighting a brief war over the result of a game.

 

Still, when combined with other aggravating factors, the threat to any form of friendship across the East China Sea is clear to see.

Potential flashpoint

 

The question, according to experts in Sino-Japanese ties, is whether this is just another bump in a road that has always been rocky or something more serious.

Japanese politicians' visits to the
Tokyo war shrine are a sore point

For those that are hoping the present problems are nothing more than a passing cloud, the aligning of the football match, the discovery of more chemical shells left over from the war in northern China, renewed questions over a group of disputed islands known as the Senkakus in Japan and the Diaoyus in China, and the question of oil and gas deposits in the East China Sea come at a bad time.

But the most immediate of the various potential flashpoints in relations falls on Sunday.

The rapidly approaching 15 August anniversary of the end of World War II will be marked by Japanese politicians visiting Tokyo's Yasukuni shrine, where the souls of the nation's war dead repose alongside Class A war criminals.

The outcry from countries that were invaded by imperial Japan in the 1930s and 1940s is an annual rite, but the protests from China may well have an added edge this year.

While bilateral relations might not be in a downward spiral, "it may be more than a bump", in the words of Greg Moore, an expert in Japan-China relations and a professor at Eckerd College in Florida, USA.

"I would call it a trend towards a potential for increased tension between Japan and China as China's material capabilities and power grow and unredressed issues from the past simmer under a continued onslaught of anti-Japanese rhetoric from the Chinese Government and media," he said.

Pent-up emotions

 

Moore said, "As China's power grows, its sense of confidence grows too, and so too grows the sense of indignity at Japan's sins of the past, which the Chinese believe have not been satisfactorily dealt with by Japan."

 

And Japan's victory on Saturday might just be the spark to ignite that widely held anger some time in the future.

"I fear it could be the catalyst to worsening relations," said Moore.

 

"The Chinese people sometimes think their government does not have enough backbone in its dealings with foreign powers, and it would not be unprecedented for them to take matters into the streets"

Professor Greg Moore, expert on China-Japan relations
Eckerd University, Florida

"I think the Japanese have less of a historical chip on their shoulders and so a loss was not likely to bring throngs into the streets. A loss by China, however, could have provoked an outpouring of long pent-up anti-Japanese emotions among the Chinese populace" - about 60,000 to 70,000 of whom were in the stadium that day.

"The Chinese people sometimes think their government does not have enough backbone in its dealings with foreign powers, and it would not be unprecedented for them to take matters into the streets," he said.

In recent days, Japan has marked the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. The third major annual ceremony are the rites at Yasukuni, a huge shrine close to the Imperial Palace in central Tokyo that has, in years gone by, been the scene of violent clashes between right-wing groups and anti-war protesters.

Living in denial?

 

On Sunday, the tree-lined road beneath a pair of towering traditional-style torii gates will be thronged by old soldiers who have come to remember comrades who fell in battle more than a half-century ago, by widows and the middle-aged children of the soldiers, sailors and airmen who died for the emperor during Japan's colonisation of large swathes of Asia. 

There will also be the rightists, many in jackboots and quasi-military uniforms, marching up to the steps of the wooden temple where they will bow their heads and offer brief prayers.

Inevitably, several dozen members of Japan's political parties will also visit the shrine, including some senior members of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's cabinet.

Many in China see Germany as a
role model for postwar humility

 

Koizumi will not be there himself - even he accepts that would be too provocative to Japan's neighbours - but he has repeatedly stated that he intends to visit the shrine once a year. This year, he paid his respects on 1 January.

The governments of China, North and South Korea and Taiwan were quick to issue condemnations. To the people of these countries, Tokyo is living in denial.

"Germany, similarly guilty of war crimes, has apologised humbly, profusely and repeatedly - augmenting its apologies with generous compensation for its victims," wrote Philip Yeung, director of the Hong Kong Society for the promotion of English, in an opinion article in The South China Morning Post newspaper.

"Japan, in stark contrast, has refused to help the healing process," he wrote. "To date, all Chinese victims remain uncompensated. Forced to seek expensive individual redress through the Japanese courts, nearly every one of the lawsuits has been slapped down.

"None of the 'comfort women' forced into sexual slavery or human guinea pigs in Japan's wartime biological experiments have received a single dollar in compensation," Yeung said. "Japan underlines its contempt for its neighbours through Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's visits to the Yasukuni Shrine to honour convicted war criminals."

"None of the 'comfort women' forced into sexual slavery or human guinea pigs in Japan's wartime biological experiments have received a single dollar
in compensation"

Philip Yeung,
director of Hong Kong Society for the Promotion of English

But while the two countries might not be able to change the events of history, some believe China needs to stop trying to extract political mileage out of the past and that Japan would be far better to simply "come clean" on the events of 1931 to 1945 instead of keeping them out of the media and history text books.

"I am not optimistic about Sino-Japanese relations in the near future," said Yang Zhong of The University of Tennessee.

"I think the Chinese Government can do something to check the rising anti-Japanese feelings among Chinese. It should learn how to behave like a big power in the world by getting rid of its victim mentality, looking beyond historical scares, handling foreign relations with grace, and being sensitive to the feelings of its small neighbouring countries.

'Double-edged sword'

"China should understand that there is a genuine fear among its neighbours as China rises as an international power," Yang said.

Mutual interests have prevented
a serious showdown

"The Chinese Government should realise that extreme nationalism is a double-edged sword.

"If not handled properly, Chinese nationalism has the potential to destabilise political stability inside China and force the Chinese Government to carry out belligerent and adventurous foreign policies toward its neighbours," Yang said.

But not everyone is quite so pessimistic about the course of future relations across the East China Sea.

"Even if the mutual antipathy grows, the stabilising factor is the interdependence of two economies," Tsuneo Watanabe, a senior fellow at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC, says.

"As long as mutual interests exist, the Japan-China bilateral relationship will continue to avoid a serious break-up, despite the occasional antagonism."