Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed Monday to work together to elevate bilateral relations to a new level, as Japan prepares for a state visit by the Chinese leader next spring.
On the first day of Abe’s three-day visit to China, the Japanese and Chinese leaders also reaffirmed their cooperation in achieving North Korea’s complete denuclearization, a Japanese government source said, with a year-end deadline set by Pyongyang for progress in denuclearization negotiations with the United States looming.
On Xi’s planned visit to Japan, Abe told the Chinese president at the outset of their meeting in Beijing, “We want to build a relationship that is suitable for a new era for Japan and China.”
Xi told Abe, “I am willing to maintain close communication” to raise “Sino-Japanese ties to a new level.”
Abe pledged to make Xi’s state visit to Japan “meaningful,” the Japanese source added.
The prime minister also told Xi that Hong Kong, rocked by pro-democracy protests over the past several months, should “continue to be free and open.”
In a press briefing after the Xi-Abe meeting, Otaka Masato — spokesman for the Japanese minister of foreign affairs — said Abe “urged China to continue its self-restraint” over Hong Kong and expressed “hope for an early resolution of the situation.”
The meeting between Abe and Xi, the first since June on the sidelines of the Group of 20 Osaka summit, was designed to lay the groundwork for Xi’s state visit amid a recent thaw in bilateral ties.
With Beijing locked in a trade war with Washington, Japan and China have been exploring deeper economic cooperation and increased people-to-people and cultural exchanges, according to Japanese officials.
After their talks, Abe had dinner with Xi before leaving for Chengdu, southwestern China, to attend a trilateral gathering Tuesday that will also include South Korea.
Abe is expected to discuss how to handle a provocative North Korea and deepen economic cooperation with his Chinese and South Korean counterparts.
Abe also plans to meet with South Korean President Moon Jae-in. The meeting will break a 15-month stretch without formal talks due to a worsening of ties after South Korean courts ordered Japanese firms to compensate wartime forced laborers.
“The Japan-South Korea relationship remains in a severe state, but it’s important for Japan and South Korea, along with the United States, to work together under the current regional security environment,” Abe told reporters at the Prime Minister’s Office before his departure.
“As I plan to meet with President Moon, I will convey Japan’s stance on the issue of former workers from the Korean Peninsula among others,” Abe said.
The gathering comes as North Korea ratchets up its rhetoric, raising concerns that it may be preparing to conduct an intercontinental ballistic missile test.
Abe, Moon and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang are expected to discuss ways to achieve North Korea’s complete denuclearization. The Japanese leader is also likely to raise the unresolved issue of Japanese nationals abducted by Pyongyang in the 1970s and 1980s, according to officials in Tokyo.
The leaders also hope to promote free trade among them and across the continent under the 16-member Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.
Abe’s visit to China, the first since October last year, also includes separate meetings with Li on Wednesday. It is China’s turn to host the latest round of talks by the leaders of the three nations, which were first held in 1999.
“They can agree on the need for North Korea’s denuclearization, and at issue is how much deeper they can go (in terms of coordination) over its missile tests,” said Ken Jimbo, a Keio University professor well-versed in East Asian security issues. “Bilateral relations — this time the worsening of Japan-South Korea ties over issues like export controls — will have a strong bearing (on the three-party framework),” Jimbo said.
On Friday, Japan’s trade ministry eased some export controls on South Korea-bound materials used in making semiconductors and display panels. In July, it had placed tighter controls on the materials for security reasons, though Seoul saw the measures as retaliation for the spat over wartime labor.
But despite some emerging signs of easing tensions, Tokyo and Seoul remain at loggerheads.
Abe plans to return to Japan on Wednesday.