By Kiyota Higa and Nobuha Endo / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WritersOSAKA — Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and visiting Chinese President Xi Jinping both emphasized that they will keep improving bilateral relations during their meeting in Osaka on Thursday, although some thorny issues that could strain these ties continue to lurk in the background.
Abe and Xi held their talks ahead of the summit of the Group of 20 major economies in Osaka. As wrangling between China and the United States intensifies on trade and other issues, Abe and Xi emphasized their intention to continue building the momentum emerging in Japan-China ties, despite friction over issues including the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture.
At the start of their meeting at an Osaka hotel, Abe offered some warm words to Xi.
“The Japan-China relationship has completely returned to a normal track,” Abe said, adding that he “welcomed” the continued accomplishment of new progress in bilateral ties.
A smiling Xi replied, “The relationship between China and Japan is at a new historic starting line.”
The fact that both leaders, in front of the cameras, spoke optimistically about the future prospects for bilateral ties can be considered a major accomplishment of these talks. One attendee at the meeting said the talks were held in a “warm atmosphere.”
The subject of the about 8.38 million Chinese that visited Japan in 2018 also popped up in the conversation. Xi said to Abe that Chinese people really like Japan and asked for any advice on how to increase the number of Japanese tourists to China. Abe replied that it was “important for both sides to have an interest in the other.”
The bilateral meeting was followed by a dinner. Although the prime minister has very limited opportunities to entertain fellow leaders individually around the G20 summit, he instructed government officials to give priority to setting aside time for a dinner with Xi. Abe’s intention was to deepen the trust in his relationship with Xi.
In October 2018, Abe became the first Japanese prime minister in seven years to make an official visit to China and was warmly received by Xi at a dinner there.
During an appearance on an online program on June 21, Abe outlined his eagerness to hold talks with Xi.
“We’ve built a relationship that allowed me to hold frank talks during our dinner when I visited China last year,” Abe said. “I also want to hold more in-depth discussions at our summit meeting.”
Japan-China ties quickly chilled after the Democratic Party of Japan-led government nationalized the Senkaku Islands in September 2012. The Chinese side became increasingly wary of Abe after he visited Yasukuni Shrine in 2013 and pushed ahead with security-related legislation. Direct talks between Abe and Xi did not happen until about two years after Abe began his second stint as prime minister in late 2012.
Relations began to thaw in the autumn of 2017, when Xi started his second term as president with a bolstered power base. Around this time, trade friction between China and the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump was revving up.
“Signs of improvement in the Japan-China relationship were evident at that time, but the increasing antagonism between Beijing and Washington gave these ties a major boost,” a Japanese government official told The Yomiuri Shimbun.
Senkakus, Huawei unresolved
With a breakthrough to defuse U.S.-China trade friction nowhere on the horizon, Xi’s administration is leaning ever closer toward Japan. Xi’s acceptance of an invitation to make a state visit to Japan in spring 2020 also reflects the importance he attaches to ties with Japan.
“A new atmosphere, which we had not seen for many years, is forming,” Xi said to Abe at their talks Thursday, alluding to the recent developments in the bilateral relationship. In a prod at the Trump administration’s increasingly protectionist policies, Xi also said he wants to promote “multilateral, free trade.”
While Tokyo-Beijing ties are on the upswing, the likelihood of resolving some pending problems remains unclear.
Chinese government ships have been sailing through the contiguous zone around the Senkaku Islands for more than two months. During Thursday’s meeting, Xi reiterated China’s position asserting sovereignty over the Senkakus. By making the state visit a reality even while incursions into Japanese territorial waters are becoming normal occurrences, Xi appears to be aiming to “make Japan accept” this change to the status quo, according to a Chinese expert on relations with Japan.
Issues swirling around major Chinese telecommunications equipment maker Huawei Technologies Co. also have become a major problem. Xi’s administration is calling on Japan to rethink its position of effectively excluding Huawei products from procurement by government bodies. At a time when the United States is leading efforts to form a growing global net around China, Xi hopes to make Japan an opening for chipping away at this effort.
According to the Japanese government, the Huawei issue was not discussed during the latest bilateral talks. However, it also is possible various conditions could be attached to the diplomatic cards that will be played to make Xi’s next visit to Japan a reality.Speech