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International relations

Japan and China agree to promote rules-based multilateral trade

Foreign ministers discuss RCEP and potential trilateral trade deal with South Korea

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, left, holds a news conference with Japanese counterpart Toshimitsu Motegi in Tokyo on Nov. 24. (Pool/Kyodo)

TOKYO -- Japan and China will work together to uphold and strengthen rules-based multilateral trade, the countries said Tuesday, agreeing to bring the recently signed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership into effect quickly and to hold talks with South Korea on a three-way trade deal.

The agreement came after Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi held discussions in Tokyo, the first face-to-face talks between the countries' foreign ministers in nine months.

The two sides also agreed to reopen their borders to each other for business travel by the end of this month, a move to stimulate crucial economic activity that has been disrupted by the COVID-19 outbreak.

The two countries will approve short-term business travel and long-term stays for expats. The agreement was supposed to have been made in October, but was delayed due to increasing new infections in Japan. Cases also rose in China.

There was no talk of a state visit to Japan by Chinese President Xi Jinping, which was earlier postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Japanese side.

At a news conference following the meeting, Wang said: "China and Japan should enhance mutual trust and engage in positive interactions so as to build bilateral relations that meet the requirements of the new era."

"Both countries agreed to work together to promote economic recovery [and] hold a new round of high-level economic dialogue at an appropriate time next year," Wang added.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, left, and Japanese counterpart Toshimitsu Motegi bump elbows at the start of their talks in Tokyo on Nov. 24.   © Reuters

The two sides failed to heal the rift over the Senkaku Islands, the Japanese-administered islets in the East China Sea that China claims as the Diaoyu. Motegi said he "strongly urged China to take positive action" on Chinese government ships entering Japanese territorial waters around the islands.

Wang stressed that China will continue to protect its sovereignty and called on Japan to refrain from actions that would complicate the situation in sensitive waters.

"The two countries will strive to launch the direct line under the maritime and air contact mechanism between their defense departments within this year so as to strengthen risk management and control and enhance security mutual trust," Wang said.

Motegi expressed Japan's "concern" over human rights issues in Hong Kong, and pressed China to protect the human rights of Uighur Muslims in the Xinjiang region and Japanese nationals detained in China.

Japan and China agreed to set up a forum to discuss policies to fight global warming.

Motegi requested that China drop import restrictions on Japanese food that were imposed after the 2011 earthquake and nuclear disaster in northeastern Japan. The two sides agreed to discuss the matter later.

Wang is visiting Japan and South Korea. For both nations, China is the biggest trading partner. Hoping to avoid discord with Beijing on the economic front, Tokyo sought to improves ties by proposing cooperation in areas such as trade.

After Japan and China signed the RCEP, the 15-member trade pact covering East Asia, on Nov. 15, some Chinese media outlets called for talks on a free trade agreement among China, Japan and South Korea.

In recent weeks, China has indicated that it hopes to deepen economic cooperation with the rest of Asia, including Japan. On Friday, Xi said China "will favorably consider joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership," the trade pact that included the U.S. before the administration of President Donald Trump pulled out of the deal. In the latest foreign ministers' meeting, the Chinese side brought up bilateral economic cooperation several times, including imports of Japanese food.

Japan aims to keep China in check on security matters while China seeks closer ties with Japan by playing the economic card. But for Tokyo, gaining an advantage on both fronts through diplomacy proves difficult. And if U.S.-China relations sour further, those two rivals could press Japan to choose a side.

Masaya Kato in Tokyo and Tsukasa Hadano in Beijing contributed to this report.

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