The Foreign Ministry on Friday tapped “China school” diplomat Yutaka Yokoi as Japan’s new ambassador to China, underscoring its resolve to move bilateral relations forward at a time when tensions are building over territorial issues.
Yokoi, 61, will replace Ambassador Masato Kitera within 30 days.
China school is a term used to refer to envoys who underwent language training in China. The last China school diplomat to become ambassador was Yuji Miyamoto, who served from 2006 to 2010.
“When Japan and China are both responsible for the peace and security in this region, the relationship with China is important,” Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said. “That’s why we appointed Yokoi, who is an expert on China.”
Yokoi has held several China-related posts, including director of the ministry’s China and Mongolia Division, consul general in Shanghai, and chief minister at the Japanese Embassy in Beijing. He is presently ambassador to Turkey.
Yokoi’s appointment comes at a time when Japan and China are at odds over disputed islands in the East and South China seas, including the uninhabited Senkaku Islands, which China claims as Diaoyu and Taiwan as Tiaoyutai.
Bilateral relations have shown intermittent signs of improvement since 2014, when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping finally held their first, brief, summit after Xi’s elevation to the presidency in March 2013.
Although relations seem to be improving, there is still underlying mistrust.
The communist country is growing increasingly skeptical of Japan’s involvement in the South China Sea, where Beijing is aggressively building a military presence via reclamation projects on disputed islands, unnerving its Southeast Asian neighbors and the United States, which has been conducting freedom of navigation patrols within the 12 nautical miles (22 km) of the Paracel Islands to challenge the moves.
Japan has been carefully avoiding direct involvement there, partly because the Self-Defense Forces are busy patrolling the East Japan Sea, where Chinese vessels intrude regularly in waters around the Senkakus.
Yet Japan has been providing capacity-building assistance and loaning defense equipment to nations in Southeast Asia, actions China views as hostile.
Despite the various conflicts, Kishida repeatedly underscores that it’s important to have talks with China on different levels and hopes to make a visit to Beijing by the end of spring.
Abe also has said he wants to hold a summit with Xi during the Nuclear Security Summit at the end of this month.
Neither meeting has been officially scheduled so far.