BEIJING – Defense Minister Taro Kono and his Chinese counterpart, Gen. Wei Fengzhe, agreed to work to boost mutual trust and strengthen communication amid growing Japanese concerns over Beijing’s increasing military assertiveness.
Kono made clear that there are still various issues between Japan and China, including the East China Sea.
“We have strong concerns especially regarding Chinese vessels and airplanes in the sea and airspace surrounding the Senkaku Islands,” Kono said. The Senkakus are claimed also by China, which calls them Diaoyu.
Kono made the first visit by a Japanese defense chief to China since 2009, reflecting a recent thaw in bilateral ties that had previously grown frosty over wartime history and territory.
Japan and China are seeking to soon open a hotline under the bilateral Maritime and Aerial Communication Mechanism launched in June last year. The plan is aimed at averting accidental clashes between the Self-Defense Forces and the Chinese military at sea and in the air.
The two countries have yet to settle a dispute over the Japanese-controlled Senkakus. Chinese vessels have entered Japanese territorial waters near the islets on numerous occasions.
During his last visit to Beijing in August as foreign minister, Kono told his then-Chinese counterpart Wang Yi that “a real solution” is needed regarding the islets in order to deepen Sino-Japanese ties.
Kono and Wei also agreed that the two countries will work together on North Korea’s denuclearization amid growing tensions between Washington and Pyongyang, while citing the importance of fulfilling U.N. Security Council resolutions on the reclusive country.
The agreement comes amid stalled denuclearization talks, with North Korea warning that it will resume nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests if it fails to reach a breakthrough with Washington by the end of the year.
Stephen Biegun, Washington’s top envoy for North Korea, has asserted that “the United States does not have a deadline.”
While visiting Japan and South Korea this past week, Biegun added Beijing to his list of destinations in order “to discuss the need to maintain international unity on North Korea” with Chinese officials.
The Japanese government also expects Kono’s two-day visit to lay the groundwork for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s planned three-day trip to China from Monday for a trilateral summit with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to make his first state visit to Japan next spring.
Some Japanese conservative lawmakers, however, have asked Abe not to invite Xi to Japan, as political unrest in Hong Kong has continued unabated and Beijing has shown no sign of acceding to demands by pro-democracy protesters.
Kono said he urged China to create a “good environment” for Xi’s planned visit while also conveying that the current unrest in Hong Kong should be resolved through peaceful dialogue.