BEIJING – A delegation of more than 100 executives from leading Japanese firms arrived Monday in Beijing to promote greater economic cooperation with China but was denied meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping or Premier Li Keqiang, a bilateral source said.
At a time when no tangible progress has been made in improving diplomatic relations, the Japan-China Economic Association said it is instead scheduled to meet with Chinese Vice Premier Wang Yang, who is in charge of commercial affairs, on Tuesday afternoon.
The visit, led by Fujio Cho, Toyota Motor Corp.’s honorary chairman, is the biggest business delegation to go to China since bilateral ties began unraveling more than a year ago over ownership of a group of small islets claimed by both Japan and China.
The delegation wanted to meet with Xi or Li during its stay in Beijing through Thursday. It also wants to talk with other senior officials about issues related to trade, investment and the environment.
In the afternoon, the delegation held talks with China’s Commerce Minister Gao Hucheng.
“Even though squabbles have arisen between the governments, it is crucial to maintain periodic exchanges in various fields,” Cho said at a meeting last week.
Since Xi and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have not held a formal summit since Xi assumed the presidency in March, Cho’s remark reflects a sense of fear that the political turbulence might spill over to the business world.
The delegation includes Hiromasa Yonekura, chairman of Keidanren, the power lobby that represents Japan’s biggest businesses, and Takashi Imai, honorary chairman of Nippon Steel and Sumitomo Metal Corp.
Now that its hopes for meeting China’s top leaders have been dashed, the delegation is trying to arrange meetings with officials from the various state organs in charge of economic affairs, the source said.
The business community has been having trouble arranging meetings with top Chinese leaders since the Japanese government effectively nationalized the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea in September 2012.
A mission that the Japan-China Economic Association planned to send last fall was delayed until March, with the size of the delegation scaled down to some 20 people.
China hardened its attitude further in April, when some Cabinet ministers paid visits to Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which served as the spiritual backbone of Japan’s war of aggression. This forced Keidanren and the Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry to scrap a similar joint economic mission in May.
But the business community has apparently detected signs of a thaw in China’s attitude.
Japan’s exports to China, which shrank after the slump in diplomatic ties, posted year-on-year rises for six consecutive months through September.
In that same month, the leaders of 10 leading Chinese companies flew to Tokyo and held talks with Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, Abe’s right-hand man.
Business leaders from Japan and the United States have called for a high-standard agreement in the ongoing multilateral Trans-Pacific free trade talks.
In a joint statement adopted at the 50th Japan-U.S. Business Conference in Washington on Friday, the business leaders showed support for the 12 TPP negotiation members’ objective of bringing their talks to a successful conclusion by the end of the year.
But they stressed, “The timetable should not drive an outcome that does not meet the ambition and high standards envisioned and committed to by the leaders of the TPP partners.”