China has revealed for the first time it is inviting Japan to its commemorative events marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, in a bid to showcase goodwill to Japan and boost public perception of the events.
In a rare move, the invitation was personally extended by Chinese President Xi Jinping to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe three weeks ago. Vice-Foreign Minister Cheng Guoping revealed this at the end of the multilateral Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) meeting in Russia, according to Chinese media reports yesterday.
All eyes are now on Mr Abe as the clock ticks down to the centrepiece of the commemorative events - a military parade through Tiananmen Square on Sept 3.
It is unclear if the Japanese leader will accept the invitation, but some analysts say it is possible that an understanding about his attendance has been reached.
This is the first time that China is holding a WWII victory parade but international reception has been cool. There have been few confirmed attendees, amid concerns that they would be seen as taking sides in an event that could turn into a Japan-bashing exercise.
"China is trying to balance two things: satisfy domestic nationalism and convince the outside world that the commemoration is not an anti-Japan event," International Crisis Group senior analyst Xie Yanmei told The Sunday Times.
She added that an invitation to Mr Abe allows Beijing to show that China is trying to bring the Japanese leader to face history, and also to show other nations that the event is inclusive.
Foreign Ministry officials are said to have been working diplomatic channels to secure world leaders' attendance as a poor turnout would embarrass China and cause its parade to suffer the same fate as Russia's in May, when only 26 foreign dignitaries, including Mr Xi, were present. US President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel were among the noticeable absentees.
Mr Cheng had announced that leaders of SCO member states, including Russia and other central Asian countries, will attend China's parade, while their militaries will take part in the ceremony as well.
Japan's participation is the most closely watched and China's decision to tie the invitation personally to Mr Xi could mean a few things, analysts told The Sunday Times.
It could be that an understanding has been reached regarding Mr Abe's attendance, or that Mr Xi's name is attached because China is reasonably confident its invitation will not be rejected. A thaw in relations between the two neighbours has resulted in increased exchanges among leaders and politicians.
"China wants to show that it's being magnanimous but the warming bilateral ties will also figure into its calculation when sending a personal invite like this," Dr Zhou Yongsheng, a professor of Japan studies at China Foreign Affairs University, told The Sunday Times.
But some see it as a gambit to force Japan's hand. Declining the invitation could be seen as a personal rebuff for Mr Xi. "China could portray the rejection as Abe's refusal to face history," noted Ms Xie.
Kyodo news agency, citing a government source, said yesterday Mr Abe is considering a visit either before or after the parade on Sept 3.
This could potentially be a compromise, allowing Mr Abe to attend other commemorative events but not the military parade, which is seen as the most politically sensitive, noted Sino-Japan expert Jiang Yuechun from the China Institute of International Studies.
"Since the invite does not single out the military parade, Mr Abe has some wriggle room," he said.