Japan and China are making progress on realizing a leaders’ meeting early next month. However, deep tensions remain over issues in the East and South China seas and over North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.
The foreign ministers agreed last Wednesday to seek a meeting between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in China next month, an event to which Beijing attaches great importance.
The same day, senior Abe adviser Shotaro Yachi traveled to China at the invitation of State Councilor Yang Jiechi, Beijing’s top diplomat, and discussed bilateral ties with Yang and Premier Li Keqiang.
The drive of Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to create a favorable environment for the G-20 comes despite frictions over the Senkaku Islands.
Tensions have escalated this month over repeated entries of Chinese government vessels in Japanese waters nearby. China considers the isles its territory.
Analysts say if the two countries have created a conciliatory atmosphere it is not because they are narrowing their differences but because they both want the G-20 summit to be a success.
“The near-term intentions of Japan and China matched up. China wants to demonstrate that it has exhibited leadership in hosting the G-20 summit, while Japan sees strengthening ties between the world’s second- and third-largest economies important in pushing through Abenomics,” said Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Sophia University.
Nakano added: “China’s stance of seeking expansionism at sea will not fundamentally change even after the leaders’ talks. Japan will also seek to push its controversial agenda” such as reforming its pacifist Constitution and implementing its new security laws, fueling tensions.
Some officials agree with this view.
“Even if the leaders’ meeting is realized, it may be difficult to see a change in China’s stance,” a senior Japanese diplomat said.
Japan brought off a successful trilateral foreign ministers’ meeting with China and South Korea on Wednesday despite frictions over the Senkaku Islands, which apparently prevented Beijing and Tokyo from fixing the date until the last minute. The event was confirmed at only two days’ notice.
Japanese officials said it was meaningful that Wang visited Japan as the first Chinese foreign minister to do so under Xi’s leadership for the meeting that also involved South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se.
Ties between Japan and its two neighbors remain cramped by territorial disputes and grievances over the other side’s attitude to regional history before and during World War II.
“The very fact that foreign ministers from Japan, China and South Korea have gathered is itself very significant, even if they could not reach an agreement and have conflicting views,” a senior Japanese diplomat said.
But the ministers did not issue a joint statement after the meeting, which came hours after North Korea test-fired a submarine-launched ballistic missile, the latest in a series of actions that defy U.N. Security Council resolutions.
A trilateral meeting in March last year produced a joint statement in which the three ministers reaffirmed their firm opposition to the development of nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula.
At their meeting Wednesday, the ministers urged North Korea not to engage in acts of provocation.
They also agreed to step up cooperation over Pyongyang, although their opinions differed of what needs to be done.
Japan sees cooperation from China, North Korea’s long-standing ally and benefactor as well as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, as key to reining in North Korea’s nuclear ambitions at a time when the country is improving its nuclear and missile capabilities.
On Friday, the U.N. Security Council strongly condemned four North Korean ballistic missile launches in July and August, calling them “grave violations” of a ban on all ballistic missile activity.
China had been increasingly hesitant to condemn the launches this year, arguing against resolutions and pressing for diplomatic solutions instead. Friday’s Security Council statement reflected growing anger and concern among member states, including China.
Tokyo and Beijing also remained apart in their views over the South China Sea in their bilateral talks at the foreign ministers’ meeting, the official said.
Japan wants China to comply with a recent U.N. court ruling that invalidated its claims to almost all of the South China Sea. Beijing has rejected that ruling as invalid, telling Japan to keep its nose out of South China Sea affairs.
Japan is not a party to the disputes in the South China Sea but sees the waters as a vital route for oil imports. It maintains that China should exercise restraint over its military buildup in the contested waters.
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