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International Relations

China and Japan still groping their way to rapprochement

Caution on show at meeting of foreign ministers in Beijing

Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono, left, met with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in Beijing on Sunday. (Pool photo)   © AP

BEIJING -- Sunday's meeting here between the Japanese and Chinese foreign ministers showed that while both sides talk about wanting better relations, each seems to be waiting for the other to make the first move, particularly on sensitive territorial matters.

For the handshake that began their three-and-a-half-hour encounter, Japan's Taro Kono strode in with a smile, only to turn serious when he realized that stony-faced Chinese counterpart Wang Yi was not reciprocating. The cool reception suggests a guarded stance by Beijing toward Tokyo's gestures of goodwill.

Japan hopes to advance the relationship with a series of high-profile trips in 2018 and 2019, starting with a visit to Japan by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and culminating in one by President Xi Jinping. In between, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe would travel to China.

Sunday's meeting was also meant to lay the groundwork for a three-way summit with South Korea. But Kono and Wang were unable to commit to a specific date for the trilateral meeting, which Japan hopes to hold in April.

Xi has shown himself not averse to improving relations with Japan -- a desire Abe has voiced on multiple occasions. Wang said China welcomed what he called the prime minister's "expressions of a proactive attitude." That Li and Yang Jiechi, China's foreign policy chief, also agreed to meet with Kono on a Sunday, when Beijing rarely does diplomacy, suggests a measure of good faith toward Abe's goal.

But signs of distrust regarding the Abe government were also visible. Beijing's statement on the meetings said Tokyo was urged to adhere to the "One China" principle, which regards the Chinese mainland and Taiwan as part of a single country. Japan should also look to China as not a competitor but a partner and see its rise not as a threat but as an opportunity, Kono was reportedly told.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, right, was apparently not in a smiling mood when he shook hands with Japanese counterpart Taro Kono.   © Kyodo

Wang's apparent reticence to open up to Japanese advances may reflect upcoming personnel moves. The foreign minister is expected to be appointed to replace Yang as state councilor when the National People's Congress, China's parliament, convenes in March. Yang is seen being promoted to vice premier in charge of foreign affairs.

This makes now a tricky time for giving ground, especially on anything that relates to national security. Sunday's meeting followed a Jan. 11 incident in which a Chinese military submarine entered East China Sea waters near the Senkaku Islands, which China claims as the Diaoyu. The vessel sailed through the so-called contiguous zone extending outward from Japan's territorial waters.

Kono told Wang that such incidents could "impede improvement in relations" and asked Beijing to take steps to prevent a recurrence. Wang appears to have responded that the Senkakus belong to China, and the two men essentially talked past each other, according to a Japanese account of the meeting.

On communication protocols meant to prevent accidental maritime clashes between their countries' forces, Kono and Wang confirmed that both sides would work to have the safeguards in place soon. They also affirmed cooperation on dealing with the North Korean nuclear situation. But Beijing is clearly less inclined than Tokyo to ratchet up the pressure on Pyongyang.

One takeaway was an agreement to sign a bilateral pact that would prevent businesspeople residing in either country from paying unnecessarily into the social security system.

Kono's trip to China marked the first by a Japanese foreign minister since April 2016.

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