BEIJING – A senior Japanese official responsible for Asian affairs secretly visited China in mid-July to explore the possibility of arranging a meeting between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Xi Jinping later this year on the sidelines of a regional summit, diplomatic sources said on Wednesday.
The official held talks with Xiong Bo, a deputy director general of the Asian Affairs Department at China’s Foreign Ministry, telling him that Abe would like to hold his first formal meeting with Xi at this year’s summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, to be held in Beijing in November, according to the sources.
The secret visit took place as contacts between officials of the two countries have become slightly more active in recent weeks, though China has been critical of the Abe government on historical issues.
Abe, who has been in office since late 2012, has been unable to hold formal talks with Xi and other Chinese leaders due to a territorial dispute over islands in the East China Sea and his visit in December to the war-related Yasukuni Shrine.
During the meeting in Beijing, once of the sources said Xiong inquired as to whether Abe had decided whether he or not he would pay another visit to the controversial Tokyo shrine, which is seen as a symbol of Japan’s past militarism as it honors convicted Japanese war criminals along with millions of war dead.
“Although many influential Japanese politicians recently came to China and suggested that the prime minister will no longer visit the shrine, I would like to know his real intentions,” the source with the knowledge of the meeting quoted Xion as saying at that time.
On the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands, called Diaoyu in China, Xiong proposed that “there can be a different way of saying” when they talked about Beijing’s claim that the two countries had a tacit agreement, in the course of negotiations on the normalization of bilateral diplomatic ties in 1972, to shelve the sovereignty issue, according to the source.
Japan, which has denied there was such an agreement, has consistently taken the position that the islands are an integral part of its territory and therefore no territorial dispute officially exists between Tokyo and Beijing.
Since this spring, a series of Japanese delegations have visited Beijing in the hope of finding ways to thaw icy relations between the world’s second- and third-largest economies.
China has started saying it is keen to promote exchanges with ordinary Japanese people, companies and political parties.
When transport minister Akihiro Ota, a former leader of New Komeito, the junior coalition partner of Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party, visited Beijing in late June, he also agreed with Chinese Vice Premier Liu Yandong that the two countries would expand such exchanges.
Several days after Ota became the first Japanese minister to visit the Chinese capital since Abe’s government was formed in December 2012, Junichi Ihara, director general of the Japanese Foreign Ministry’s Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau, held informal talks with his new Chinese counterpart Kong Xuanyou, also in Beijing.
Before there can be a meeting with Abe, China has been telling Japanese lawmakers that the prime minister must first promise not to visit the war-related shrine and that his government needs to admit that a sovereignty dispute exists over the uninhabited islands.