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International relations

Xi touts 'new era' of China-Japan ties in shadow of Trump

Two leaders remain far apart on Senkakus and Hong Kong

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, left, and Chinese President Xi Jinping have seen relations improve recently, but points of contention remain.   © AP

BEIJING -- Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe agreed Monday to step up cooperation for a "new era" of bilateral relations, showcasing a thaw that contrasts sharply with Beijing's fraught ties with the U.S.

"I hope to maintain close communication with the prime minister and elevate Sino-Japanese relations to a new level," Xi said at the roughly 40-minute summit here.

Xi greeted Abe with a smile, and the two leaders shook hands -- a far cry from the stiff, awkward expressions both wore when they met in 2014. The change shows how the atmosphere has improved from its nadir following Tokyo's 2012 nationalization of the Senkaku Islands, which China claims and calls the Diaoyu.

Xi has pursued closer ties with Tokyo as China faces the prospect of a protracted clash with the U.S. Beijing hopes to learn from Tokyo, which has managed to build a good rapport with President Donald Trump despite occasional trade frictions. But Japan and China do have their own set of unresolved issues, including the incursion of Chinese vessels into Japanese waters near the Senkakus and Beijing's detention of Japanese nationals. 

In a dinner after the summit, Abe praised the partial Sino-American trade agreement, noting that the two sides successfully resolved some of their differences through dialogue. He urged Xi to continue with reform to create a fair and equitable business environment. 

Though progress has been made on the U.S.-China trade war with the recent "phase one" deal, tensions still run high on other fronts, including technology and security. 

Abe also brought up pending bilateral issues, in hopes of ironing them out before Xi's state visit to Japan next spring. He called clashes between police and demonstrators in Hong Kong "deeply alarming," and he asked for a more transparent explanation of human rights issues in China's treatment of members of the Uighur ethnic minority.

In response, Xi reiterated Beijing's stance that both matters are internal affairs.

Abe also pressed Xi to take speedy action on the matter of Japanese nationals held by China amid a security crackdown. Fifteen Japanese have been detained since 2015, of whom 10 have yet to return.

The Japanese leader said there can be no real rapprochement between the two countries without stability in the East China Sea -- referring to increased Chinese activity around the Senkaku Islands -- and urged self-restraint by Beijing.

A record 1,000-plus Chinese vessels have sailed near the islands this year. The ships involved in the incursions have been growing larger and more heavily armed, a Japan Coast Guard representative said.

For his part, Xi called for Japan to cooperate with China on its Belt and Road infrastructure initiative and on leveraging artificial intelligence and big data.

Abe told Xi that Tokyo is "extremely focused" on his state visit, which he called an "important milestone" for Sino-Japanese relations. The two countries see the event -- the first state visit by a Chinese president since Hu Jintao in 2008 -- as a chance to further develop bilateral ties and are considering taking the opportunity to sign a "fifth political document" defining the terms of their new relationship.

Both leaders stressed their countries' shared responsibility for maintaining peace, stability and prosperity in Asia and the world as a whole -- an idea linked to Xi's concept of a "community of common destiny." Tokyo hopes to use this shared ideal to guide Beijing in a more positive direction.

The two leaders agreed to work together toward the complete denuclearization of North Korea, and both were in accord on the importance of full implementation of United Nations Security Council sanctions.

Xi requested support for a proposal by China and Russia to ease sanctions on Pyongyang. Tokyo believes that it is too soon to consider such a move, a Japanese government source said after the meeting.

Abe and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang will meet with South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Tuesday in Chengdu for a three-way summit. Abe will meet with Moon separately on the sidelines of the gathering, marking the first formal talks between the two leaders in more than a year.

The Japanese leader will speak with Li on Wednesday about specific proposals for cooperation.

Additional reporting by Tsukasa Hadano in Beijing.

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