Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, on Tuesday agreed to restart business travel between the two countries later in November, after months of discussions on reopening routes amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Tokyo also strongly demanded Beijing take “positive action” over repeated intrusions by Chinese vessels into waters around the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, Motegi said during a joint news conference with Wang.

The Chinese foreign minister stood his ground on the issue — one of the two countries’ most vexing — saying that China would “continue to protect our sovereignty” over the islands, which it calls the Diaoyu. However, he also said he hoped the two sides could turn the waterway into “a ‘sea of peace’ … through the joint efforts of both parties.”

The travel agreement came at the start of a much-vaunted two-day visit by Wang, who is hoping to accomplish two key goals for China: reaffirming diplomatic ties with a relatively new Japanese administration, and gauging Tokyo’s attitude on bilateral issues and cooperation with the U.S. after President-elect Joe Biden is sworn in next January.

The Chinese foreign minister arrived earlier Tuesday and is expected to meet Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and powerful Liberal Democratic Party Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai, who has deep connections with Beijing and is seen as dovish within his conservative party.

Wang’s visit marks the resumption of in-person diplomacy between the two countries, which has been hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic, and is Suga’s first in-person meeting with a high-ranking Chinese government official since he assumed office in September.

Although the raging virus interrupted traditional in-person meetings and conferences, bilateral relations are also on uncertain ground amid persistent Chinese violations of territorial waters administered by Japan and unyielding crackdowns by Beijing that raise concerns about human rights abuses.

“There are various problems outstanding in our bilateral relations and, as I’ve been saying, I believe it’s important to resolve them one-by-one through meetings between high-ranking officials,” Motegi told reporters Friday. “I’m determined to have honest discussions about regional issues, the novel coronavirus pandemic and international affairs.”

Despite changes in Japanese leadership, Motegi and Wang have built a close working relationship through a series of meetings. Tuesday’s discussions are their sixth talks this year alone, which have included four teleconferences.

Wang’s visit also comes at a precarious time for Beijing, as it faces an increasingly hostile environment and bolstered efforts to curb its maritime pushes in the East and South China seas.

Officials in Beijing have also voiced unease about Japan’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) policy, accusing Tokyo and its regional partners of working to develop a collective security body equivalent to an “Asian NATO” to counter China.

Japanese government officials insist the FOIP push is not designed to target China. Still, after Suga and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced in Tokyo last week that they had reached a broad defense agreement enabling their troops to work more closely — with China’s rising regional influence in mind — Beijing reacted angrily.

“China deplores and firmly rejects the press statement released after the talks between Australian and Japanese leaders, which launched groundless accusations against China and grossly interfered in China’s internal affairs,” said Chinese government spokesman Zhao Lijian.

And when Motegi hosted the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue last month, inviting top foreign affairs officials from the other three “Quad” countries — India, Australia and the U.S. — to discuss regional security matters, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying slammed the gathering, saying that “organizing closed and exclusive cliques will not help to build mutual trust and cooperation.”

Experts say the Chinese foreign minister may also use the visit to try and exploit any vulnerabilities in the Suga administration’s stance on the Quad and FOIP.

“Wang will be testing — and most likely trying to weaken — Japan’s commitment to the Quad,” said Ralph Cossa, president emeritus of the Pacific Forum think tank in Hawaii.

Cossa said Beijing may also be worried about decreasing Japanese investment — Japan has looked to diversify supply chains by shifting many of its firms in the country elsewhere amid the U.S.-China trade war and as the pandemic wreaks economic havoc.

So Wang could be looking to ameliorate those concerns, possibly by playing up the freshly inked Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership — a new trade deal involving 15 nations in the Asia-Pacific region, including the two economic powerhouses.

But while China’s trade practices, unyielding maritime claims, bellicose acts against Taiwanese autonomy and human rights neglect in Hong Kong and Xinjiang have fostered distrust and alienated the U.S. and Europe, Beijing appears unwilling to antagonize Tokyo too much.

Wang’s visit to Japan could be part of Beijing’s endeavor to keep China’s neighbors close, a senior Japanese Foreign Ministry official said.

“My impression (at that time) was that it appeared the Chinese wanted desperately to come to Japan,” the official said ahead of the Quad summit, adding that they likely wanted to be in the loop on discussions at that meeting.

Japan, too, has appeared hesitant to let the relationship with China deteriorate, despite its concerns over maritime assertiveness. It depends heavily on the world’s second-largest economy. In 2019, before the pandemic roiled the globe, roughly 30% of all visitors arriving in Japan were from China.

Suga also recently declared that Japan would go carbon neutral by 2050 in a bid to address climate change — an overlapping policy goal with China and an issue likely to come up during Wang’s visit. The two sides could also bring up plans to resume business travel, according to another senior Foreign Ministry official.

Having the in-person meeting now, despite being in the middle of an unsuppressed pandemic, is critical after the result of the U.S. presidential election, the senior Japanese Foreign Ministry official said.

President-elect Joe Biden is poised to assume the presidency on Jan. 20, but — much like his predecessor — is expected to maintain policies critical of China, leaving Japan on the lookout for any clues as to how the Chinese leadership will work with the new U.S. administration.

Biden’s victory, which was effectively confirmed Tuesday, “will reshuffle international relations” in the Asia-Pacific region, said Zhang Baohui, a political science professor at Lingnan University in Hong Kong.

“As many have said, Biden will return to a more multilateral strategy by working closer with U.S. allies,” he said. “That could worry China. So Wang’s visit could be designed to proactively shape the future direction of Sino-Japanese relations in the context of a Biden presidency.

“How Japan balances its relations with Beijing and Washington should be of great importance to China,” Zhang added.

Indeed, both the Chinese and Japanese will be all ears as to their counterpart’s impressions and expectations of how the new dynamic will play out.

“The meeting is going to be serious,” the official said. “When it comes to human rights issues, there’s a possibility that Biden would take a firmer stance. … We’d like to know what China thinks of Biden, too.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.