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Japan floats business aid idea for China's Belt and Road plan

Tokyo hopes proposal will put broader bilateral relationship on track

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe greets Chinese President Xi Jinping before their bilateral meeting in Danang, Vietnam, on Nov. 11 on the sidelines of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.   © Kyodo

TOKYO -- The Japanese government hopes to warm chilly relations with China by offering to help with Beijing's Belt and Road Initiative, an effort to forge stronger economic links between it and countries to the west, extending as far as Europe.

Under the plan, Japan would extend financial assistance to Japanese companies doing business with China as part of the initiative, on a case-by-case basis.

If Chinese President Xi Jinping visits Japan, possibly in 2019, Tokyo hopes the two sides will sign a "fifth document" to add to the four diplomatic agreements that form the basis of bilateral relations.

In recent months, senior Japanese officials, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, have warmed to the idea of participating in the Belt and Road Initiative, saying Japan would like to take part if conditions are right, and if it helps build peace and prosperity in the region.

The plan to improve ties with China, however, does not include a time frame for Tokyo to join the Beijing-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

Under the proposed Belt and Road Initiative guidelines, the Japanese government will provide financial assistance to companies working in environmental and energy-conservation technology, industrial development in third countries, improving distribution systems and other areas.

Financial support will be provided through the Japan Bank for International Cooperation, Nippon Export and Investment Insurance and other channels. Lenders will provide capital, taking into account project transparency, profitability and the economic impact on local economies. They will also ensure that the aid does not go to military use.

Turn the page

Japan has blown hot and cold over China's economic ambitions in Asia. It has taken some steps under what it calls the "free and open Indo-Pacific strategy" to counter Beijing's growing strategic influence, but now says that effort and China's infrastructure-building under the Belt and Road Initiative are not at odds.

Tokyo believes strengthening ties with the world's second-largest economy will benefit the Japanese economy and contribute to regional security. Sino-Japanese relations have been strained for the past half-decade over tensions in the East China Sea. In 2010 a Chinese trawler operating within 12 nautical miles of the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands collided with Japanese patrol boats. The detention of the Chinese ship's captain triggered a major diplomatic dispute. 

Tensions further rose when Japan nationalized the Senkaku Islands, which China claims and calls Diaoyu, in 2012. 

In the face of the growing threat from North Korea, Japan feels it is vital to keep in close contact with China, which is a sometime backer of the rogue state.

The Japanese government hopes to announce specific plans for joint projects between the two sides when Chinese Premier Li Keqiang visits Japan for a trilateral summit between Japan, China and South Korea, likely in April 2018. The projects could include joint work on solar power generation. More broadly, Japan and China have already begun work to help companies from both countries to find business partners.

Tokyo hopes to arrange reciprocal visits by Xi and Abe soon. Abe would like to visit China next year as the two countries observe the 40th anniversary of the signing of the Japan-China peace and friendship treaty, and he plans to invite Xi to visit Japan, possibly in 2019, when Japan will host a Group of 20 summit.

If the relationship has improved sufficiently, Japan hopes to sign the fifth diplomatic document during Xi's visit. The four key documents underpinning the bilateral relationship are: the Japan-China joint communique of 1972, the 1978 peace and friendship treaty, the 1998 joint declaration and the 2008 joint statement, which affirmed the promotion of a "mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests."

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