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International Relations

China's premier broadens charm offensive to court Japan Inc.

Li invites businesses to join Belt and Road projects

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, left, toasts alongside Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Sadayuki Sakakibara, chairman of the Keidanren business lobby. (Photo by Takuya Imai)

TOKYO -- Chinese Premier Li Keqiang turned his diplomatic skills on Japanese business and political leaders Thursday, opening new fronts to promote bilateral cooperation and to push his country's signature infrastructure initiative.

"It is safe to say that Sino-Japanese political ties are returning to normal," Li said at one point during the day. The premier came to Japan for a three-way summit with Prime Minister Shizo Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, which took place on Wednesday.

On his third day in the country, Li visited the Diet to meet with the leaders of both chambers and also held meetings with ruling and opposition lawmakers in the capital.

"I have felt that all segments of Japanese society are eager to raise Sino-Japanese relations to a new level," Li told Tadamori Oshima, speaker of Japan's lower house. He invited Oshima to visit China in his capacity as a senior politician.

Speaking to a group of ruling-coalition officials, including Liberal Democratic Party Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai and Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi, Li said China hoped to work with them to ensure both countries' "stable and sustained development."

The premier covered other political bases by meeting with senior figures from six opposition parties, including Yukio Edano, chief of the center-left Constitutional Democratic Party.

The business community was next on his list. Li touted China's Belt and Road infrastructure initiative at a reception hosted by Japanese business leaders, including Sadayuki Sakakibara, chairman of Japan's top business lobby, Keidanren. China aims to "link the project to Japan's growth strategy," he told business leaders.

The two countries "hold responsibility for protecting free trade and standing up to protectionism," he added, particularly as the Donald Trump administration in the U.S. ratchets up its protectionist trade policy.

Li's four-day visit to Japan, which began Tuesday, is the first by a Chinese premier in eight years. Four days is an unusually long time for someone in his office to spend overseas, he acknowledged at the business reception. But Japan need not wait another eight years for the premier's next visit, Li promised.

Li apparently believes Japan's business community, which has a relatively smooth relationship with China, could help underpin broader Sino-Japanese relations.

The premier ended his day in Hokkaido, ahead of a gathering of Japanese and Chinese governors in Sapporo on Friday. Li met with Hokkaido Gov. Harumi Takahashi on Thursday evening, saying China is prepared to import "safe, high-quality agricultural products" from the region, which is a major Japanese agricultural hub.

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