The Yomiuri ShimbunPrime Minister Shinzo Abe warmly received Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, who visited Japan for the Japan-China-South Korea trilateral summit meeting in Tokyo, apparently to emphasize improved relations between Japan and China and make strategic arrangements to pave the way for a future visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping, according to sources.
When Li visited Hokkaido on Thursday and Friday after Wednesday’s three-way summit, Abe accompanied the Chinese premier on part of his itinerary — an unusual move for the Japanese prime minister. Meanwhile, Li repeated friendly comments during his stay in Japan through Friday.
The Japanese government highlighted Abe’s hospitality to Li. A source close to the prime minister said, “It laid the foundations for a future visit by Chinese President Xi.” However, the path to realizing a visit to Japan by Xi is not likely to be easy due to concerns including issues related to the Senkaku Islands and North Korea.
On Friday afternoon, Abe stepped toward a runway at New Chitose Airport in Hokkaido to see Li off with a smile as he returned to China. The unscheduled act was open to the press. A senior Foreign Ministry official said, “The scene gave the impression of an improvement in Japan-China relations on Japanese people and abroad.”
It is the first time in seven years that a Chinese premier has visited Japan. The Japanese government treated Li as one of the highest-ranking official guests.
On Thursday, the day after the bilateral meeting between Japan and China, Li met with the Emperor, the speaker of the House of Representatives, the president of the House of Councillors, senior members of the ruling and opposition parties, and executives in business circles. Political and business leaders gave Li a warm welcome in a cooperative manner.
Li also brought to the fore his stance on the Japan-China friendship. At the bilateral meeting, the leaders likely avoided an in-depth discussion on delicate issues, including the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture and the historical perceptions of the two countries.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said at a press conference on Friday, “[The leaders of Japan and China] shared a very intimate moment and spent good-quality time together. It will advance bilateral amicable relations to the next stage through cooperation in every field.”
In order to promote the trend of improving Japan-China ties in a full-fledged manner, the Japanese government is aiming to realize reciprocal visits of the leaders of the two countries. The next focal point is when Abe’s visit to China and Xi’s visit to Japan will be realized.
At the bilateral meeting, Li officially asked Abe to visit China this year. Concerning Xi’s visit to Japan, there appears to be the view that Xi will likely visit in tandem with a summit of the Group of 20 major and emerging economies to be held in Osaka in June next year.
However, pending issues such as the Senkaku Islands pose dangers to the friendship progressing.
Regarding a solution to the North Korea issue, there is a wide difference between Japan, which puts emphasis on pressure, and China, which attaches importance to dialogue.
A Japan-China diplomatic source said, “There is a possibility that reciprocal visits of the leaders of Japan and China could be delayed more than expected, depending on the trends in public opinion of both countries.”
A tug of war concerning the reciprocal visits of the leaders has already begun.
Abe is aiming to secure a third consecutive term in office in the presidential election of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in September. As he wants to use his visit to China as leverage to raise the approval rating of his Cabinet, he intends to visit China at an earlier date.