The foreign ministers of Japan and China agreed Sunday to go forward with mutual visits by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
The agreement came as Chinese Foreign Minster Wang Yi makes a rare visit to Tokyo, in a sign of improving cooperation between Asia’s two largest economies as they face policy whiplash from the U.S. over trade and security.
Wang’s trip to meet his Japanese counterpart, Taro Kono, became the first of its kind in more than eight years.
Abe and Xi have not held talks in the format of an official visit by either side since both men took office in 2012.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang is set to visit Japan next month for a trilateral summit with Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
Wang told reporters after meeting with Kono that the Chinese side “confirmed Japan’s desire to improve its bilateral ties with China.” Upon his arrival in Tokyo earlier in the day, Wang had only said he hopes the bilateral ties will be “brought back onto a normal track.”
Japan wants to confer with its neighbor ahead of a summit between the two Koreas and a potential meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un. China’s bid to repair relations comes as the U.S. threatens trade sanctions and a renewed emphasis on Taiwan ties.
The long-fraught ties between Tokyo and Beijing deteriorated to a 40-year low after the government’s 2012 purchase of disputed islets near Taiwan sparked Chinese demonstrations, damaged trade and even raised fears of a military clash. Since taking office at the height of the dispute, Abe has sought rapprochement with Japan’s largest trading partner.
He finally managed to turn the tide last year with a qualified pledge of cooperation on Chinese President Xi Jinping’s signature “Belt and Road” trade and infrastructure initiative.
“For the Abe administration, China is essential to effectively pressuring North Korea,” said Madoka Fukuda, a professor of global politics at Hosei University in Tokyo. China is motivated by a lack of transparency in U.S. policymaking, as well as tougher American security and trade stances, she added.
Abe is set to meet Trump in Florida this week, where he plans to press the president to maintain a hard line on North Korea and seek to persuade him to take a more multilateral approach to trade.
Despite the diplomatic push, tensions over territory and Japan’s militarist history remain. Coast guard and military ships from both countries continue to tail one another around the uninhabited Senkaku Islands, known as Diaoyu in China and Tiaoyutai in Taiwan. The Self-Defense Forces activated a new amphibious unit to help defend remote islands just a week ago.
A poll published in December found a marked fall in the percentage of respondents in Japan and China who saw ties between the two countries negatively. Still, few see the relationship as good.
On the agenda for Sunday’s talks will be preparations for a May trip to Japan by Premier Li Keqiang. Abe has expressed hopes the exchanges will presage a return to regular reciprocal visits between leaders of the two countries.
A high-level Japan-China economic dialogue will resume Monday, amid concerns in both countries about the potential for a trade war sparked by the U.S. The Chinese are seeking Japanese cooperation on U.S. steel and aluminum tariffs implemented last month, Kyodo News reported Saturday, citing people close to the talks.
Trump threw fresh confusion into trade negotiations Thursday by instructing advisers to review the possibility of returning to the negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a sprawling free trade deal. The TPP, which Trump withdrew from soon after taking office last year, includes 11 Pacific Rim nations, but not China. Successful visits by Wang and Li would provide positive publicity at a crucial time for Abe, whose chances of winning a ruling party leadership election in September have been damaged by a series of allegations of cronyism and government cover-ups. Recent polls show public support for his Cabinet has fallen below disapproval.
“For China, Trump is unstable and unreliable,” said Yasuhiro Matsuda, a professor of international politics at the University of Tokyo. “Even if Abe resigns, Japan is relatively stable. So they can use ties with Japan as a form of insurance.”
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