First visit to Beijing by a Japanese prime minister since 2011 expected to bring economic cooperation that prepares the way for warmer political relations.
China and Japan are set to boost their cooperation on infrastructure projects and Tokyo is pushing to resume talks on joint exploration in the disputed East China Sea when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visits Beijing next week, sources have said.
A forum of more than 1,000 business leaders and some government officials will be held during Abe’s visit next Thursday to Saturday, according to sources familiar with the matter. Abe will be the first Japanese prime minister to visit China in seven years.
Described by officials from both countries as an important step in their rapprochement, the visit will include meetings between Abe and Chinese leaders including Premier Li Keqiang and President Xi Jinping.
Japan has been a rival to China not only in East Asia but also in a global infrastructure push. Relations between the countries have also been strained by historical factors and territorial disputes in the East China Sea.
Since last year, the two Asian powers have pursued a diplomatic detente, at a time of uncertainty over their respective ties with the United States. Beijing has hoped that this can prevent Tokyo joining US efforts to isolate China as well as easing the impact of its trade war with the US.
Concerns about declining US leadership in Asia, meanwhile, have forced Japan to recalibrate its previously confrontational approach and try to improve relations with China, its second-largest trading partner
Cooperation on projects under the “Belt and Road Initiative”, Xi’s signature infrastructure drive, has been a key aspect. But Japan has preferred to refer to it as cooperation on third countries, avoiding directly adopting the Chinese term.
Japan has insisted such cooperation should fit with its “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy”, which advocates enhanced connectivity between Asia and Africa. That strategy corresponds with US policies but Japan has downplayed the perception that it is a means to contain China.
Beijing and Tokyo are also moving to ease strategic mistrust, with the two defence ministries having been drafting an agreement covering cooperation on search and rescue at sea.
The Japanese side has also been pushing, according to one source, to resume negotiations on joint development of natural gas and oil in the disputed East China Sea. Those talks have been suspended since 2010 because of worsening ties.
But the official added that an agreement on that was unlikely during this trip.
“We strongly believe this agreement is very important not only in economic terms but also the political aspect,” said a Japanese official involved in the visit, who requested anonymity. “Because if we can go forward with this agreement, it will help us to improve the overall situation surrounding the two countries.”
The two sides are also discussing plans to set up a new dialogue mechanism on innovation and intellectual property rights, the sources said, as the Asian powers carefully move closer while China remains in the escalating trade dispute with the US, Japan’s closest ally.
Abe’s visit will include a ceremony to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between Japan and China taking effect, as well as the signing of a series of memorandums of understanding between the two countries’ private sectors on belt and road projects.
This will come after the countries held the first session of the China-Japan Third-Party Market Cooperation Working Mechanism – created for them to coordinate their work on belt and road projects – in Beijing in September.
“At the moment, the cooperation is mainly between private sectors,” said a source involved in the preparation of the visit, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Government-to-government collaboration will be further discussed in that mechanism.”
The source added that China and Japan were likely to sign agreements on financial cooperation, including currency swap and securities in the stock market.
Tokyo has also been pushing for China to relax its ban on Japanese food imports produced in 10 Japanese prefectures.
The ban was introduced following concerns about radiation pollution after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear crisis – a series of equipment failures, nuclear meltdowns and releases of radioactive materials at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in northeastern Japan following a devastating earthquake and tsunami.
– Catherine Wong
This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Abe visit likely to see Beijing and Tokyo edge closer