Japan and China agreed Wednesday to implement a long-sought maritime and aerial communication mechanism, aimed at averting unintended clashes between their armed forces in and above nearby waters, in the latest sign of improving bilateral ties.
As Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang met for the first time in Tokyo, the two countries, whose ties were strained for years over territorial and wartime issues, signed a range of cooperation agreements, covering areas such as investment, infrastructure-building and social security.
“Momentum for improvement in the Japan-China relationship, which has kicked off a new start, has been increasing quickly,” Abe told a joint news conference. “I want to build a relationship in which leaders can easily travel to each other’s country.”
Abe said he is “looking forward to visiting China (again) at an appropriate time” following a request from Li.
The agreements were reached following a trilateral summit — also involving South Korea — and at a time when Beijing is seeking to rebuild trust and form a united front with its Asian neighbors as it faces the growing threat of a protectionism-driven United States under President Donald Trump.
The communication mechanism, a sort of hotline between defense officials, is scheduled to be put into practice from June 8.
Amid a long-running territorial row over the Japan-controlled Senkaku Islands, claimed as the Diaoyu Islands by China, the two Asian powers eventually agreed not to specify the geographical scope of the mechanism, including whether the uninhabited islets in the East China Sea fall within it.
During negotiations, Japan demanded that its territorial waters and airspace around the Senkakus not be subject to the system.
As Japan and China mark the 40th anniversary of their peace and friendship treaty this year, their eagerness for renewed friendship was on full display as Abe and Li stood together side by side at Akasaka Palace.
In what Li called a symbol of Chinese friendship toward Japan, Beijing also agreed to donate to Tokyo a pair of crested ibises — the first such gift in 11 years — to help facilitate the artificial breeding of the special national treasure.
Some experts have noted that improved ties between the two countries come as China and President Xi Jinping grow wary of Trump’s protectionist trade policy that recently led to hefty tariffs being imposed on Beijing, whose subsequent tit-for-tat response has spurred worries of a trade war between the world’s two largest economies.
“Xi was originally sanguine about getting along with Trump, but the recent tariff move, which came as a surprise for him, awakened him to the reality that China has to fight America after all, and that it has to repair ties with Japan and embrace it under its wing,” said Noriyuki Kawamura, a professor of Sino-Japanese relations at the Nagoya University of Foreign Studies.
In an apparent reflection of this sentiment, Beijing has recently gone out of its way to reset ties with its Asian neighbors, including Vietnam, the Philippines and India. Xi held an informal, relation-building summit with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the central Chinese city of Wuhan last month.
In a joint appearance with Abe, Li unveiled a number of initiatives aimed at fostering economic activities with Japan.
Specifically, Li said China will accelerate discussions with Japan on the potential signing of a bilateral currency swap agreement, which expired in 2013 and has not been updated since.
He also announced China will grant Japanese investors a quota of Renminbi Qualified Foreign Institutional Investors (RQFII) — a program aimed at facilitating foreign investment in mainland China’s securities — putting Japan on par with more than a dozen countries eligible for the initiative.
Following the trilateral summit, Abe also separately held talks with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and agreed that they will bolster cooperation toward North Korea’s denuclearization and to advance a “future-oriented” relationship.
Abe and Moon agreed that his visit to Japan, the first in seven years by a South Korean president, symbolized the resumption of shuttle diplomacy between Tokyo and Seoul.
During the talks, Abe praised South Korea’s recent block of an attempt by activists to put up a statue in Busan symbolizing Korean workers forcibly taken to Japan during its 1910-1945 rule of the Korean Peninsula, according to a senior government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.