One day before the start of the G20 Osaka summit, visiting Chinese President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe held a bilateral meeting in the city Thursday to underline the recent improvement in Japan-China ties and prepare for Xi’s planned visit to Japan as a state guest next year.

At the outset of the meeting, Abe asked Xi to visit Japan, to which Xi immediately responded, saying “it’s a good idea.”

In addition, each of the two leaders separately said their countries should champion “free trade,” remarks that could be interpreted as veiled criticism of the United States. The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has threatened to slap tariffs on Chinese and Japanese exports amid trade tensions.

“The G20 summit this time will be held against the backdrop of an increasingly complicated world economic situation,” Xi said. “I strongly hope the summit will form shared views and send out a clear message to protect multilateralism and free trade.”

Abe meanwhile said he welcomes the”new developments” and a Sino-Japanese relationship that is based on the principles of “promoting free and fair trade.”

Officials of both sides emphasized the two countries started improving ties far before U.S. President Trump started a trade war by slapping higher tariffs against Chinese imports.

But the tensions have given more reasons for Beijing to improve ties with Tokyo, which is also facing U.S. pressure on trade, particularly regarding its automobile and farm sectors.

“Today protectionism is rising in the world economy. To protect rule-based multilateral trade systems, (Japan and China) should join forces to contribute more to the stability and prosperity of the region,” Chinese Ambassador to Japan Kong Xuanyou said during a news conference at the Japan National Press Club in Tokyo last week.

Also during the meeting with Xi, Abe argued that a free and open society and the one-country, two systems with Hong Kong should be maintained, with the recent dispute over a controversial extradition bill in mind, according to Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasutoshi Nishimura. Xi’s response was not immediately known.

Abe also asked Beijing to “exercise self-restraint over its activities” around the Japan-held Senkaku islets in the East China Sea and emphasized the importance of demilitarization of disputed islands in South China Sea.

In response, Xi reiterated Beijing’s own views over those disputes, according to Nishimura. China claims the uninhabited islets, which are known as Diayou in China.

On the sidelines of the G20 Osaka summit, Abe is planning to have bilateral meetings with nearly 20 world leaders, including not only Xi, but Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Most of Abe’s bilateral meetings will be very brief, but those with Xi, Trump and Putin were expected to be much longer.

Thursday’s Abe-Xi meeting was followed by a dinner banquet hosted by Abe. On Friday morning, Abe will meet with Trump, and immediately follow that with a trilateral meeting involving Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the same venue in Osaka.

On Thursday, Abe had bilateral meetings with eight world leaders in total, including Xi, Modi, European Council President Donald Tusk, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

At the outset of his meeting with Abe, Tusk told him the Osaka summit “will be a difficult G20,” given a number of global challenges in addition to those involving trade and climate change.

During the 40-minute working lunch session, EU leaders revealed they will propose to its member states that some of the food import restrictions from the Tohoku region be eased, according to Nishimura.

The EU and many countries imposed bans on food imports from Tohoku after the March 2011 triple core meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant.

However, based on its analysis of radiation data provided by Japan, the EU plans to lift some of its import bans, including on soy beans from Fukushima and seafood from Miyagi, Ibaraki and Gunma prefectures.

During the meeting, Abe thanked the EU leaders for the planned proposal, saying reconstruction of the disaster-hit Tohoku region is “a top priority agenda for his administration,” according to Nishimura.

Meanwhile, Modi told Abe that he hopes to develop cooperation with Japan in the areas of security, digital affairs, cooperation in third countries and disaster-risk reduction, according to Japan’s Foreign Ministry.

Abe proposed that the two countries should hold a so-called two-plus-two meeting of foreign and defense ministers to push for the realization of “a free and open Indo-Pacific,” the Foreign Ministry said in a press statement.

The concept, originally proposed by Abe, emphasizes the rule of law and freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific region, and, despite Tokyo’s denials, is often seen as part of Japan’s efforts to keep China’s growing power in check.

On Thursday, Foreign Minister Taro Kono met with John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser, in Osaka in apparent preparation for the Abe-Trump meeting.

“Excellent meetings today in Osaka w/ Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono and National Security Advisor Shotaro Yachi. As we work jointly with Japan to tackle complex global challenges, I am continuously reminded of the pivotal importance of our alliance that is global in scope,” Bolton tweeted later in the day.

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