In negotiations with his hosts behind closed doors, however, the smiles on both sides were missing.

Chirac is a huge Japanophile: he has visited the country numerous times, although it has been five years since his last trip. And he made sure that the latest visit, ostensibly to attend the opening of the 2005 World Exposition in Aichi prefecture, also coincided with a sumo tournament in nearby Osaka.

While Tokyo was happy too to have a foreign leader who so clearly revels in Japanese culture, future visits by Chirac may be more chilly thanks to his insistence that Europe will lift an embargo on the sales of advanced weapons systems to China.

To Japan, the very idea of a nation it considers to be increasingly belligerent, being armed with state-of-the-art conventional weapons - on top of its nuclear arsenal - is cause for deep misgivings.

Position clear

"Japan's position is that we are concerned about the security situation in the Asia-Pacific region and we hope that the European Union will give careful consideration to this issue," Akira Chiba, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry in Tokyo, said.

China recently granted its army
the legal right to invade Taiwan

"We have made our position clear to the EU on various occasions: we are concerned about stability."

Chirac and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi were pictured shaking hands over a conference table before talks in Tokyo on Sunday evening, but their comments to reporters after the meeting revealed just how far apart the two sides remain.

"We told the president that we are against it," Koizumi said, referring to the EU's proposal to lift an embargo that was imposed in 1989, after the Chinese government crushed pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.

He added: "We believe that steps that would not cause tensions in the security situation in East Asia overall continue to be needed."

Worst-case scenario

As well as the threat - be it perceived or actual - to Japan, Tokyo fears that China is ratcheting up the pressure on Taiwan, which Beijing regards as a renegade province, and that any military action against Taipei will prompt a reaction from the US, potentially touching off a conflict into which Japan will inevitably be sucked.

Koizumi does not want steps that
could cause tensions in East Asia

Chirac attempted to play down Japan's fears, although Tokyo, as well as Washington, remains concerned at the worst-case scenario.

"The prime minister told me of his concerns and asked me for an explanation," Chirac said through an interpreter. "I indicated to him that the decision of the European Union does not imply a change in exports of sensitive arms or technology to China as they are subject to rules that cannot be broken.

"As a result, the decision does not mean that things will change," the French president said.

"It's a political decision. We believe that lifting (the embargo) is being legitimately sought by China and that's why we have taken this decision."

Early deadline

Chirac also indicated that the move would go ahead in spite of Britain's suggestion that the lifting of the embargo should be delayed after the Chinese government announced that it had granted its armed forces the legal right to invade Taiwan if it sought formal independence from the mainland.

The 25-nation EU is expected to lift the ban on weapons sales by the end of June.

Japan and China are locked in a
number of territorial disputes

"In the last two years, we have not seen any significant change in the military doctrine on the part of China, so I have to ask why there is this perception of a threat to Japan," Joseph Cheng, an expert in Sino-Japanese relations at the City University of Hong Kong, said.

"Since the 1970s, Japan has not seen China as a threat - even when it acquired nuclear weapons in 1964 - so I see this as more of the continuing decline in China-Japan relations than a genuine perception of a military threat."

In Cheng's opinion, "the Japanese government is under considerable domestic pressure to deal with China from a position of strength and criticism of China is a popular measure on the part of the Koizumi government. It reflects rising nationalism and deepening strains on relations between the two nations".

Bitter memories

At present, the two nations are locked in a series of acrimonious disputes over natural resources in the East China Sea and sovereignty over the waters around a tiny island south of Okinawa.

Running deeper are China's memories of its occupation in the 1930s and '40s by the Imperial Japanese Army and visits to Tokyo's controversial Yasukuni Shrine by a succession of Japanese prime ministers. The shrine honours Japan's war dead, including Class-A war criminals.

Imperial Japanese Army's brutal
occupation still rankles China

Cheng says China's campaign to have the embargo lifted is on several levels: Beijing wants the country's transition to a market economy recognised and its strategic partnership with the EU strengthened, while the lifting of the embargo will also strengthen its bargaining position with Russia - which is currently supplying most of China's military hardware - and allow it to drive harder bargains.

"I don't think that China will immediately go out and buy advanced fighter jets, submarines or missiles," Cheng said. "It basically wants sensitive, dual-use technology such as computers, rocket-engine technology, and propulsion and guidance systems.

He added: "It is clear that Taiwan stands to lose the most when the embargo is lifted, but I really don't think there will be much of a threat towards Japan because China is still relatively backward in terms of military technology."

But the question is not only vexing China's immediate neighbours.

Balance of power

"The Americans - both those in Washington and the Asia watchers outside government - are very concerned about lifting the arms embargo because of the impact it could have on the balance of power between China and Taiwan," Ed Lincoln, of the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, says.

Japan sees Taiwan as a potential
flashpoint due to Chinese policy

"The United States remains committed to maintaining peace. If European companies sell the Chinese military new equipment and technology now, it could upset the balance and encourage the Chinese to adopt a more belligerent posture toward Taiwan.

He continued: "On many issues, the administration of George W Bush has adopted controversial policies that many of us outside government do not endorse, but this is not one of those cases.

"Perhaps the best way to summarise this is to say that the decision to lift the arms embargo comes at a particularly bad time."

Lincoln added: "If relations between China and Taiwan or China and Japan were in better shape, then perhaps no one would object too much. But this is not a good time for European companies to be permitted to sell military equipment to the Chinese."