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International relations

China resumes economic talks with Japan as global trade fears flare

First high-level dialogue between nations in eight years

Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (Xi's photo from AP)

TOKYO -- In resuming long-dormant economic talks with Japan, China appears to be seeking leverage with the U.S. as tensions flare over trade and Washington grabs the lead on diplomacy with North Korea.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi arrived in Japan on Sunday, and he will hold a high-level economic dialogue with Japanese officials on Monday -- the first between the countries in eight years.

Until very recently, prospects for reopening that dialogue looked dim. Repeated conflicts over the Japan-administered Senkaku Islands, which China claims as the Diaoyu, have sparked anti-Japanese demonstrations in China. When Tokyo suggested resuming the economic talks to coincide with Premier Li Keqiang's visit to Japan for a trilateral summit with South Korea, Beijing refused.

But China's tone shifted dramatically in March following constitutional changes that will let President Xi Jinping rule indefinitely. Li became a good deal more eager to visit Japan in May for the three-way talks, and preparations kicked off almost immediately for Wang's visit next week.

Japan "had not expected high-level dialogue to resume" ahead of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's visit to the U.S. in mid-April, a government source in Tokyo said. That trip is Abe's top priority at a time when Japan, as well as China, faces growing trade friction with the U.S.

China's overtures aim to address that same issue. U.S. President Donald Trump has announced steep tariffs on Chinese goods, and could take further measures. While Xi is working on the U.S. directly to ease some of these tensions, the fact that Japan faces a similar, if less severe, challenge gives Beijing an opportunity to pull Tokyo closer to its orbit with the economic talks.

Beijing also looks to reestablish itself as the leader on issues involving North Korea ahead of Trump's planned summit with Kim Jong Un, the rogue state's leader, expected in May or June. Xi himself met with Kim in Beijing last month. Dialogue with Japan could help China communicate its thoughts on the issue to American allies in Asia, and in particular to Abe, in light of the prime minister's closeness with Trump.

That connection helped bring about the so-called Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy to counter China's maritime power, a joint effort by Japan, the U.S. and allies including Australia. But Abe has also made overtures to the Chinese: Japan is ready to work with them on projects related to the huge Belt and Road infrastructure initiative.

China sees dialogue with Japan opening to door to such cooperation in third countries, advancing a plan it believes will extend its sphere of economic influence throughout Asia. Li will advance this cause during his May trip, which the two sides are considering making an official three-day visit.

The next step is setting up visits by Abe to China and by Xi to Japan. The Chinese president could make his trip in June 2019, when Osaka will play host to leaders from the Group of 20 advanced and emerging economies.

The order to make nice with Japan apparently came from Wang Qishan, left, President Xi Jinping's deputy and right-hand man. (Photo by Kosaku Mimura)

Until that time, the two sides must focus on rebuilding diplomatic connections that have withered over the years. Former State Councilor Yang Jiechi, a Xi ally and member of the powerful Politburo, has been placed in charge of foreign affairs in the Communist Party, directing the group that advises China's Foreign Ministry. Yang also heads diplomacy with the U.S., including on matters related to North Korea.

Meanwhile, it was Wang Qishan, China's vice president and Xi's right-hand man, who apparently ordered officials to make contact with Japan as tensions with the U.S. intensified, according to a diplomatic source.

Tokyo considers it important to increase Japanese interactions with the rising generation of officials who are seen as close to Xi. 

Many of them served under the president when he governed Zhejiang Province, and Fujian Province before that. Commerce Minister Zhong Shan and Finance Minister Liu Kun, two such figures, will accompany the foreign minister on his trip next week for talks with their Japanese counterparts. Chen Min'er, the party boss of Chongqing rumored to be on track to a top position, is another member of that group.

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