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International relations

Japan and China try new approach to friendship, 40 years on

Abe faces diplomatic tests as he breaks from US-led policies

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping are exploring a more amicable approach to bilateral ties.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Forty years since signing a treaty of peace and friendship that promised mutual non-aggression, Japan and China are starting to explore a more nuanced diplomatic relationship that better suits the new realities of the region and the world but could also shake up the existing regional security structure.

The shift was visible when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping met in Vladivostok, Russia, on Sept. 12. When Abe called on Xi to ease import restrictions for Japanese food, the Chinese leader replied with a smile that "Japanese rice is tasty" -- an unusual comment for a man so reserved about his personal opinions on Japan.

That meeting paved the way for Abe to go to China later this week, which would make him Japan's first sitting prime minister to do so in seven years, aside from attending multinational summits. He is scheduled for a summit with Xi on Friday.

China also rolled out the red carpet at the end of last month when Japanese national security adviser Shotaro Yachi met Yang Jiechi, a top Chinese diplomat and member of the decision-making Communist Party Politburo in Suzhou. "They say 'Heaven above. Suzhou on earth.' Do have a restful stay," Yang told his counterpart as they ironed out the details of Abe's trip. The officials discussed bringing Abe to China's leading hub for big data -- one of Xi's pet causes -- in Guiyang in southwest China.

China sees Japan as a key to weathering mounting Western opposition, just as it did following the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. Japan back then was among the first countries to lift economic sanctions on China, which led to Emperor Akihito's historic trip to the country in 1992.

Japan has long followed U.S. footsteps when it comes to China. It normalized bilateral ties in 1972 after President Richard Nixon's historic trip to China earlier that year, and only signed a treaty of peace and friendship in 1978. But this is starting to change, with the Cold War over and America's global hegemony under threat.

Unlike many of his predecessors who put all their diplomatic eggs in the American basket, Abe is now balancing his rapport with U.S. President Donald Trump with Xi's charm offensive. He is open to cooperating on Beijing's Belt and Road infrastructure-building initiative, despite earlier reservations stemming from U.S. concerns. He also does not want his strategy for a "Free and Open Indo-Pacific," initially conceived to counter Belt and Road, to be seen as a "competing message."

Abe has also improved ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin, even when the latter came under fire for the 2014 annexation of Crimea.

But the Japanese leader's new multilateral approach to diplomacy could pose problems as well. The Sino-U. S. trade war is only worsening, while Trump's decision to quit a landmark nuclear arms treaty with Russia threatens to flare up military tensions between the Cold War rivals. It is unclear whether Japan can protect its alliance with the U.S. while wooing China and Russia, especially with Washington hinting that security assurances and economic understanding go hand in hand.

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