National / Politics

Route to 'new era' of Japan-China ties unclear, despite leaders' claims of momentum

Kyodo, JIJI

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang agreed Wednesday on the need to create a new era for the two countries as they step up preparations for President Xi Jinping’s state visit to Japan next spring.

But how that new era might look is far from certain.

In a meeting in the southwestern Chinese city of Chengdu, Abe told Li that he wants to make the recent improvement in ties sustainable and promote “constant” high-level exchanges and dialogue, according to Japan’s Foreign Ministry.

Li was quoted as saying that momentum has been maintained for improving Sino-Japanese ties, adding that they are now back on a “normal track.”

The meeting took place during Abe’s three-day visit to China through Wednesday where he held a trilateral meeting with Li and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

Before flying to Chengdu, Abe also held talks with Xi in Beijing on Monday. Abe plans to receive Xi as a state guest, even as issues such as Hong Kong’s pro-democracy demonstrations and China’s assertiveness in the East and South China seas remain outstanding. “No true improvement in Japan-China ties can be achieved without stability in the East China Sea,” Abe was quoted as saying in Wednesday’s meeting with Li.

Chinese ships have regularly been spotted near the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. Beijing claims the islands and calls them Diaoyu. Sightings of Chinese government vessels alone numbered over 1,000 this year in the contiguous zone just outside the territorial waters around the islands, hitting a record high.

The country’s coast guard is controlled by China’s Central Military Commission, which is headed by Xi. Given this, “we have to have doubts about Xi’s true intent,” a Japanese government source said.

The series of top-level meetings this week were intended to lay the groundwork for the Chinese president’s first state visit since assuming the post in 2013. On Wednesday, Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi held talks in Beijing.

Still, a concrete vision for the proposed “new era” of Japan-China relations has not yet come into view, even though mutual visits by leaders to each other’s country were realized for the second straight year. Abe has visited China for two years running, while Chinese Premier Li Keqiang traveled to Japan in May 2018.

And human rights issues in China, such as the situation in Hong Kong, continue to cast a shadow on the bilateral relationship.

“It’s important that a free and open Hong Kong prospers under the ‘one country, two systems’ policy,” Abe said in his meeting with Xi on Monday. Abe also brought up the issue of human rights in China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, seeking a “transparent explanation” from Beijing.

Tokyo had taken a careful approach toward the human rights issues in China. But observers say Abe decided to clarify Japan’s stance because an increasing number of lawmakers of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party now oppose Xi’s planned visit and cite the human rights issues.

With Xi having told Abe that those issues are domestic affairs, observers say that opposition to the state visit may grow further given the current situation.

Abe also urged Xi to take prompt action regarding Japanese nationals detained in China. A Hokkaido University professor was released in November after being detained during a trip to Beijing in September, but that was followed by the news that China had detained a Japanese national in his 50s.

Since 2015, nine of the Japanese nationals detained in China on espionage and other charges have been convicted.

Further improvement in the Sino-Japanese relationship would be a major diplomatic achievement for Abe. Xi’s support is also necessary to resolve North Korean issues. And for Xi, close communication with Japan, as an ally of the United States, is an “important pillar of diplomacy” amid his country’s trade dispute with Washington, said an international relations expert in China.

The Japanese and Chinese governments are working to flesh out the new era of the bilateral relations ahead of Xi’s planned visit, and are considering the conclusion of a “fifth political document” to follow the 1978 peace and friendship treaty and other documents.

But “unless China makes a concession, it will be difficult to include a forward-looking expression” in the envisaged document, one expert on Japan-China relations said.