A series of high-level talks in Tokyo between Japan and China confirms recent developments for improving bilateral ties that had been strained over a territorial row and other matters — at one point plunging to the worst level since the two nations normalized ties in 1972. Foreign Minister Taro Kono and his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, agreed to expedite moves toward mutual visits by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping. The two governments held their first high-level economic dialogue in eight years and concurred on the need to maintain the free trade system just as the protectionist policies of U.S. President Donald Trump raise the specter of a global trade war. Tokyo and Beijing should build on the momentum of these talks and continue efforts to put bilateral ties back on track.
Wang’s visit to Japan was the first by a Chinese foreign minister for bilateral talks in more than eight years. Xi has yet to visit Japan since he took office five years ago. Kono and Wang reportedly confirmed that preparations should be accelerated for a trilateral meeting next month in Tokyo between Japan, China and South Korea’s top leaders, including Chinese Premier Li Keqiang. Steady efforts must be made to expand dialogue at all levels and fields, including private-sector exchanges, to rebuild the relations between the two countries, which this year will mark the 40th anniversary of the 1978 Japan-China Treaty of Peace and Friendship.
Japan-China relations took a nosedive in 2012 when Beijing protested the Japanese government’s nationalization of the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea — which China also claims. Even today, Chinese government vessels encroach on Japan’s territorial waters around the islets a few times a month to underline Beijing’s claim.
During their talks, Kono and Wang are said to have confirmed that Japan and China — along the lines of the 1978 treaty — will be cooperative partners and should not pose a threat to each other. In view of the Senkaku dispute, Kono told Wang that there will be no true improvement in bilateral ties without stability in the East China Sea. They reportedly concurred that the two governments should accelerate work — which began in the late 2000s — toward a formal accord to build a mechanism for emergency maritime and air communications between their militaries to avert accidental clashes. The mechanism should be implemented as quickly as possible as a symbolic act to help move the stalled bilateral relationship forward.
Last year, Abe indicated that Tokyo would support the China-led “One Belt, One Road” initiative for cross-continental infrastructure development — a project strongly pushed by Xi and deemed to be an attempt by Beijing to expand China’s economic and geopolitical clout — under certain conditions. He also called out to China for reciprocal visits by top leaders of the two countries, and restrained his earlier criticism of China’s militarization of islands that it built in disputed waters in the South China Sea. China welcomed such overtures and signs emerged of an improvement in the strained ties.
In the first high-level economic dialogue held since 2010, Kono reiterated Japan’s qualified readiness to join the “One Belt, One Road” initiative, saying that the nation is prepared to cooperate on projects that “fulfill international standards” on issues like transparency and openness. Japan should proceed with economic cooperation with China as long as it serves their mutual interests.
China is believed to have reversed its stance on holding an economic dialogue with Japan after its relations with the United States took a turn for the worse over trade disputes. In a bid to reduce the U.S. trade deficit with China, the Trump administration has announced a set of punitive tariffs. In the dialogue held in Tokyo, Japanese and Chinese officials concurred on the need to sustain and beef up the free trade regime under the World Trade Organization in an apparent reference to the Trump administration’s protectionist measures, including steel and aluminum tariffs that affect both Japan and China.
Kono and Wang also agreed that Japan and China should work together in international efforts to stop North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile development. China, North Korea’s traditionally close ally, continues to hold sway over Pyongyang’s behavior. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un paid a visit to Beijing in March for talks with Xi, ahead of his scheduled summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, which will take place later this month, and a meeting expected by June with Trump. Abe visited the U.S. this week for talks with Trump to coordinate their policies in dealing with Kim, but Japan should also stay in close touch with China as it grapples with the problems posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapon and missile programs.