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International Relations

Beijing readies new political document for China-Japan ties

'Fifth Communique' marking four decades of peace in draft stage

Sunday marks the 40th anniversary of the signing of a peace and friendship treaty between China and Japan. Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to make his first official visit to Japan next year.   © Reuters

BEIJING -- China's leadership has begun drafting a new political document meant to guide diplomatic relations with Japan, Nikkei has learned. If negotiations with Tokyo proceed as planned, Beijing expects to sign an official communique marking four decades of peace between the two countries during President Xi Jinping's first official visit to Japan next year.

Relations between Beijing and Tokyo have had many ups and downs since the Japan-China Treaty of Peace and Friendship was signed in 1978. In it, the two sides vowed to refrain from using force to settle disputes. Sunday marks 40 years since the signing of that treaty.

The countries signed similar political documents on the 20th and 30th anniversaries of the treaty, when the Chinese presidents on those occasions, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, made official visits to Japan. The planned diplomatic communique would be the fifth since the two Asian nations normalized relations in 1972.

Chinese Communist Party sources say intraparty discussions over a new political document began in June, following Premier Li Keqiang's visit to Japan the previous month.

"My visit is aimed at working with the Japanese side to bring China-Japan ties back to the right track," Li told Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo.

Beijing wants to stabilize relations with its eastern neighbor and invite Japan into a China-led international order. Xi's administration has increased efforts to bolster relations with China's neighbors this year, spurred by growing tensions with the U.S. Talk of adding a new political document to solidify Japan-China ties emerged against this backdrop.

China will press to include a reference to Xi's signature program, the Belt and Road Initiative, and a pet phrase, "community of common destiny," in the document, holding them up as examples of deeper cooperation between the two countries. Once enshrined in the document, Beijing can claim official support from Tokyo for this agenda.

Yet both sides have reservations about becoming too cozy while tensions remain on many issues. One obvious concern involves the East China Sea, where the two countries are at odds over the Japan-administered Senkaku Islands. China claims the islands and calls them the Diaoyu, but Japan does not acknowledge that a territorial dispute exists.

In 2014, after bilateral relations had sunk to a historic low, China and Japan finally broke the impasse by signing a four-point consensus, which declared that both sides recognize they have "different views as to the emergence of tense situations in recent years in the waters of the East China Sea."

Those carefully chosen words managed to thaw the icy relationship that emerged after Japan nationalized the Senkaku Islands in 2012. Yet experts say it will be difficult to incorporate that language into a new political document. Opening a debate over how to describe the East China Sea could lead to new tensions.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, shakes hands with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Vietnam in November 2017.   © Kyodo

Those who are cool to the idea of a new communique say it is premature to publish a fifth document when the goals laid out in the previous document of 2008, including cooperation in the areas of energy, the environment and health care, have yet to be achieved.

No official decision has been made on whether to create a new document, one party source noted, and Beijing might choose not to pursue it.

Japan also is contemplating a new bilateral communique. Tokyo will likely want to include language halting China's unilateral development of resources in the East China Sea. U.S. President Donald Trump's hard-line stance on China may make it easier for Beijing to accept Tokyo's terms.

But many in Japan's Foreign Ministry are wary of a Chinese push to include items such as the Belt and Road Initiative, fearing it would give the impression that Japan is entering China's sphere of influence. Many also recognize the difficulty of gaining concessions related to wording over the East China Sea, given the importance Xi places on China's territorial integrity and bolstering its maritime power.

"If we are going to be on the back foot, it is better not to have a new document," a Japanese diplomat told Nikkei.

Much has changed over the past four decades. Not only has China overtaken Japan as the world's second-largest economy, but Beijing has also gained diplomatic heft. Phrases such as "friendship" and "mutually beneficial," which featured heavily in past documents, may be insufficient to paper over the realities of the relationship today.

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