BEIJING – Japan’s new ambassador to China said Monday he is determined to step up the pace of improving bilateral relations and do everything he can to achieve a meeting between the two countries’ leaders this year.
“I will do my best to move the gears steadily forward,” Yutaka Yokoi told reporters in Beijing. “I want to boost mutual trust by communicating well with the Chinese side and cooperating on many common interests and challenges.”
Yokoi takes over the post as the two Asian powers are weighing up when and how to realize more frequent high-level political exchanges to rebuild relations.
The relationship had been improving, but the momentum has weakened in recent months. This has less to do with bilateral issues, such as those connected to the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, than with differences over the South China Sea.
Yokoi, who arrived Sunday in Beijing, said it is no wonder that Japan and China have some disagreements, but what he thinks is more important is that the two countries should manage them effectively so as not to profoundly affect their entire relationship, which is vital for peace and stability in the world.
Unlike his predecessor, Masato Kitera, who held the post since December 2012, Yokoi has significant experience in dealing with Chinese affairs.
The 61-year-old Yokoi is a so-called China-school diplomat who received Chinese-language training after entering the Foreign Ministry in 1979. He is the first Japanese envoy to Beijing since 2010 who has undergone such training.
This is the sixth time he has served in China. Most recently he was a minister in the embassy from 2010 to 2011.
He previous was the Japanese ambassador to Turkey.
China, which claims almost all of the South China Sea, has been irked over what it sees as Japan’s meddling in issues relating to contested waters.
While China is building artificial islands and facilities in the South China Sea to assert its sovereignty, Japan is one of the most vocal non-claimant countries advocating freedom of navigation and overflight in the disputed waters.
Japan has told China that its actions in the South China Sea should be consistent with international law and has warned against changing the status quo unilaterally.
Yokoi’s new job is being closely watched by China. The China Daily, a government-run English-language newspaper, carried a story Monday about Yokoi’s arrival on its front page with the headline, “Japan’s new envoy faces challenges.”
The newspaper said the new ambassador takes the post as “Sino-Japanese ties have been overshadowed by the high profile adopted by Tokyo over the South China Sea.”
However, the newspaper, very often used by the Chinese government to send its official messages to the rest of the world, at the same time welcomed Yokoi taking over the ambassadorship in an editorial, and said that his expertise is a “precious asset for handling the tricky relations at such a sensitive juncture.”