May 13, 2017 5:00 am JST

Tokyo sends big delegation to China's Silk Road forum

Prominent Abe surrogates to offer olive branch for deeper cooperation

HIROYUKI AKIYAMA, Nikkei staff writer

BEIJING -- Tokyo is sending a cadre of public and private big shots to China's modern Silk Road forum, seeing the need to deepen cooperation in light of North Korean threats despite its wariness over Beijing's growing clout in Asia.

The secretary-general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, Toshihiro Nikai, is spearheading the delegation to the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation on Sunday and Monday. He has been entrusted with a personal letter to Chinese President Xi Jinping from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Nikai arrived here Friday and spoke with Tang Jiaxuan, head of the China-Japan Friendship Association and a former state councilor, at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse. They agreed that holding three-way summit talks with South Korea earlly this year would be a plus for relations between the two countries. Negotiations are underway for meetings with top Chinese officials, including Xi.

Other attendees include Sadayuki Sakakibara, chairman of the Japan Business Federation lobby, known as Keidanren; Kiyoshi Ueda, governor of Saitama Prefecture; and Yoshifumi Matsumura, state minister of economy, trade and industry. Abe's executive secretary Takaya Imai will also arrive Saturday, an unusual trip for an executive secretary without his boss.

The Abe government has vied with Beijing to export its infrastructure, and has shown caution toward cooperating on the Belt and Road infrastructure program. It fears the initiative could strengthen China's hand in neighboring countries, as well as expand its influence in the South China Sea and elsewhere.

Nevertheless, with North Korea continuing its nuclear and missile development, Tokyo judged that mending fences with Beijing is a necessity, given its influence over Pyongyang. U.S. President Donald Trump is stepping up pressure on Xi's government for that same reason. The Abe government also aims to realize mutual visits by the Japanese and Chinese leaders.

The delegation's lineup reflects Tokyo's motives. Instead of sending economic minister Hiroshige Seko, whom Beijing had requested, they sent Nikai, who has connections in China and manages Japan's ruling party. China plans to treat Nikai as an important guest on par with a deputy prime minister.

Tokyo and Beijing have been chafing over issues including the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands, which China also claims, and sovereignty in the South China Sea. This year marks the 45th anniversary of Japan and China resuming normal diplomatic relations, and 2018 will be the 40th year since the two signed a treaty of peace and friendship -- two important milestones. But with a reshuffle of top Communist Party figures looming this fall, Beijing's diplomatic moves are limited. That means the countries will likely stick to laying the groundwork for improving ties, for now.

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