TOKYO -- A Japanese proposal to China revealed on Tuesday would see Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Xi Jinping pay each other visits next year.
Tokyo suggested the reciprocal visits in late May, when Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi was in Japan, according to Japanese government sources. China, the sources said, has signaled a positive attitude toward mending the bilateral relationship.
The leaders of the two countries have not visited each other in the same year since 2008, when Yasuo Fukuda was Japan's prime minister and Hu Jintao was China's president. The hope is that resuming active top-level dialogue will warm the countries' often-icy ties and deepen economic cooperation. This, in turn, might help the governments smooth things over on more contentious issues, such as security.
Yang visited Japan on May 29 and held individual meetings with Abe, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and National Security Council chief Shotaro Yachi. The government sources said Japan expressed its desire for mutual visits in 2018, and though specific dates were not discussed, Yang and his interlocutors agreed "to make efforts to fully improve relations."
China is taking a cautious approach to diplomacy ahead of the Communist Party's National Congress this fall.
The summit proposal, though, is part of a bigger charm offensive on Japan's part.
On Monday, Abe spoke at Nikkei's Future of Asia conference and expressed his conditional support for China's Belt and Road Initiative. Last year, Foreign Minister Kishida visited China and discussed plans to cooperate on various challenges -- from macroeconomics to energy conservation and aging populations.
For the time being, Japan will concentrate on arranging a summit between Abe and Xi during the Group of 20 summit in Germany in July. Tokyo is also keen to revive Japan-China-South Korea summits.
In the past, the three countries would rotate as host, and China would be in line to play that role in 2018. That would pave the way for Abe to go to China, and Tokyo hopes Xi will be open to visiting Japan later in the year.
This year marks the 45th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic relations between Japan and China. Next year is also significant, as the 40th anniversary of the treaty of peace and friendship between the countries.
On the treaty's 20th anniversary, in 1998, then-Chinese President Jiang Zemin made a state visit to Japan. Hu did the same on the 30th anniversary, in 2008.
With China, Japan aspires to foster a "mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests." In other words, Tokyo and Beijing should seek common ground in the context of international challenges. For example, Japan considers Chinese cooperation essential in pressuring North Korea over its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
At the same time, Japan is concerned that an improving U.S.-China relationship could undermine its own influence in the region.
Likewise, China is wary of the potential for a stronger Japan-U.S. alliance. And Beijing is at odds with Tokyo over various issues, including the Senkaku Islands, the South China Sea and Taiwan.
With the National Congress coming up -- where key leadership posts will be up for grabs -- Beijing is reluctant to wade into such sensitive diplomatic waters. So expect the governments to focus on mulling potential summit dates while avoiding friction.