• Kyodo

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The foreign ministers of Japan and China agreed Saturday to step up efforts to accelerate the pace of improvement in political relations between Asia’s two biggest economies.

The Foreign Ministry in Tokyo, which announced the agreement, said Fumio Kishida and his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, confirmed in their meeting in Beijing that the two countries are “partners for cooperation” and will not be “a threat for each other.”

Kishida stressed the need of stronger mutual trust by promoting cooperation in various nonpolitical fields, such as economics, the environment and youth exchanges, according to the ministry.

As part of steps to increase interaction among the citizens of the two countries, Kishida told Wang that Japan will further relax multiple entry visa rules for Chinese visitors.

Kishida’s trip marks the first visit of a Japanese foreign minister to China in about 4½ years at a time when the two countries are weighing up when and how to realize more frequent high-level political meetings.

In addition to bilateral issues, the two ministers held frank discussions on North Korea, the South China Sea and Taiwan during their meeting, which lasted for over four hours, the ministry said.

Kishida and Wang each expressed “serious concern” over North Korea’s repeated provocations and agreed that Tokyo and Beijing will work closely on measures to curb Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions, it said.

On Saturday, Kishida also held talks with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and State Councilor Yang Jiechi, a former foreign minister in charge of diplomatic policy whose current position outranks that of Wang.

Kishida was hoping that his latest trip would create a better environment in which top leaders of the two countries can meet more often.

Since taking office in late 2012, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has held talks only twice with Chinese President Xi Jinping, both times on the sidelines of regional meetings. The last time was in April of last year.

Again this year, both governments are finding it difficult to set the stage for an official visit of either side just for a bilateral meeting.

As this year’s chair of the Group of 20 major economies, China will host the annual summit in the scenic city of Hangzhou in September. Even if the first bilateral visit by Abe or Xi is not possible in 2016, Tokyo wants to at least realize a meeting between the two on the sidelines of the summit.

In recent months, concerns had mounted that the momentum for reconciliation had lost steam, with the two countries still at odds over the Japanese-controlled, Chinese-claimed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea and the provocative moves by Beijing in the South China Sea.

China claims almost the whole of the sea, which is home to major shipping lanes and is believed to hold vast mineral resources, and is rapidly building artificial islands there to assert its sovereignty. It has pushed ahead with this program despite not only the protests of smaller Asian neighbors, including the Philippines and Vietnam who have competing claims to parts of the waters, but also the warnings of many major countries against changing the status quo unilaterally.

Along with the United States, among nonclaimant countries, Japan is one of the most vocal advocates of freedom of navigation and overflight in the contested waters and has told China that its actions should be consistent with international law.

Beijing has increasingly grown irritated over what it sees as Japan’s interference in issues relating to the disputed sea and has criticized Tokyo for hyping up regional concerns over China’s growing military presence in the area.

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