Momentum for improving Japan-China relations

The results of meetings that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe held with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang seem to bode well for an improvement in Japan-China relations, which have been strained for years. Difficult issues remain that cloud prospects for better bilateral ties, but momentum toward such an outcome is building just as both Abe and Xi have solidified their political footing at home — Abe with yet another landslide win by his ruling coalition in the October general election and Xi after tightening his grip on power at the Chinese Communist Party convention last month. Both leaders should use their solidified power bases in the efforts to overcome differences and repair bilateral relations.

Abe held talks with Xi on Saturday in Danang, Vietnam on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, and with Li in Manila on Monday on the fringes of a series of meetings between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and its partners. It is rare for Japan’s prime minister to hold back-to-back meetings with a Chinese president and premier over such a short period.

During the Abe-Xi talks — their sixth meeting since they both took power in 2012 — the prime minister expressed his hope to “strongly” push for improvement in Japan-China ties under the principle of a “mutually beneficial strategic relationship.” Abe requested that Xi visit Japan at an early date, and Xi replied that he attaches importance to mutual visits by top leaders of the two countries. No top Chinese leader has come to Japan for bilateral talks since 2008 — an extraordinary situation given the importance of the Japan-China relationship. This situation should be rectified as quickly as possible.

Xi told Abe that their meeting marks a “new start” for bilateral ties. He did not forget to add, however, that many issues must be resolved for the bilateral relationship to improve — an allusion to the territorial row over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea and issues related to wartime history. In an apparent reference to Chinese vessels’ frequent intrusion into Japan’s territorial waters around the islands, Abe also said there will be no real improvement in Japan-China relations without stabilizing the East China Sea situation. But he refrained from directly touching on China’s aggressive maritime postures in the South China Sea, including its construction of military bases on man-made islands created in disputed waters. Instead he merely stressed the importance of a free and open navigational order based on the rule of law in any part of the world.

A positive development on a concrete issue was that Abe and Xi agreed to expedite bilateral talks for establishing an air and naval communication mechanism between Japanese and Chinese defense authorities. Talks on such a mechanism, intended to avert accidental clashes, have made little tangible progress since they began roughly a decade ago. Given the importance of the mechanism in view of the territorial row and China’s expanded naval activities in the region, the two governments should make efforts to ensure that it will become operative as soon as possible.

China has a crucial role to play in resolving the crisis over North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles development — the biggest security threat to Japan. Abe expressed hope that China will implement United Nations-initiated sanctions against Pyongyang to stop its nuclear and missile programs. Reiterating his call on the international community to maximize pressures on the North Korean regime of Kim Jong Un, Abe urged Beijing to use its position of influence over Pyongyang to play a “constructive role.” The two leaders are said to have agreed to deepen cooperation toward the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. But it’s not clear whether the apparent gap between Abe and Xi, who told U.S. President Donald Trump last week that dialogue along with the sanctions will be important to resolve the crisis, was narrowed in the Saturday talks.

Abe frequently keeps in touch with Trump as well as South Korean leader Moon Jae-in through telephone conversations to coordinate their positions on the North Korean issues. But Abe has not established such a rapport with Xi. The Japanese and Chinese governments should strive to build an environment in which their top leaders can maintain direct communication to discuss crucial regional issues.

Now that both Abe and Xi have consolidated their power at home, they are in a better position to take concrete steps to advance bilateral ties and deepen cooperation to help end North Korea’s nuclear and missile ambitions. At the same time, Xi will likely use his newly strengthened position to seek to expand China’s interest and influence overseas. It will require adroit diplomacy on the part of Japan to carefully prevent a clash of Japanese and Chinese interests while seeking to build a mutually trustworthy bilateral relationship.