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International relations

China and Japan move closer to cooperating on Belt and Road

Diplomats prepare for an Abe visit to China as early as October

Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono, left, and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met on the sidelines of an Association of Southeast Asian Nations meeting in Singapore on Aug. 2.   © Reuters

SINGAPORE -- China and Japan agreed Thursday to encourage deeper economic cooperation in the private sector, targeting infrastructure projects in the region as part of Beijing's Belt and Road Initiative.

Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono and Chinese counterpart Wang Yi agreed to launch a public-private committee to advance joint infrastructure development in other countries. Specifically, the two sides are looking at Japanese companies taking part in Belt and Road projects, with further details to be ironed out at working-level talks in Beijing as early as September.

With trade tensions with the U.S. only growing, Chinese President Xi Jinping has been eager to win over Japan and other neighboring countries. The two officials were in Singapore for a meeting of foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and agreed to meet on the sidelines.

"We want to achieve concrete results particularly in the economic sector, in order to strengthen trust between our leaders," Kono said during the Thursday meeting. "The Japanese side had many plans that would further improve our bilateral ties, and we support them," Wang told reporters after the meeting.

Wang also expressed an interest in working with Japan on digital technology, such as artificial intelligence and electronic settlement systems. The top diplomats agreed to continue a dialogue on this topic, as well as to boost bilateral cooperation in the financial sector.

Tokyo and Beijing hope to translate economic cooperation into more frequent exchanges by their leaders. Should Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe win a third term as the ruling party's leader in September, he could meet with Xi in China as early as October, followed by a trip by Xi to Japan next year. The foreign ministers could not decide on specific dates.

Wang on Thursday slammed Washington's protectionist rhetoric. While Kono responded by stressing the importance of free trade, he warned against intellectual property violations in China.

But the two sides were unable to bridge their rift on security issues. Kono continued to express concerns over China's militarization of the South China Sea, even though Wang insisted the situation was "stabilizing." Japan's Senkaku Islands, which China claims and calls the Diaoyu, and Beijing's resource development in the East China Sea remained sticking points as well.

"We need concrete progress in maritime security in order to put Japan-China ties on a stable path to development," Kono said. Wang, meanwhile, stressed the need to manage their differences.

Japan hopes that a 2008 agreement to jointly develop gas fields in the East China Sea will help propel bilateral relations forward. But China refuses to budge on its maritime claims, and is concerned that the alliance between Japan and the U.S. could expand. Abe's stance on historical disputes and Taiwan has irked Beijing as well.

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