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Japan, China move gingerly toward rapprochement

Abe focuses on reviving reciprocal visits while Xi seeks Belt and Road help

Chinese President Xi Jinping, front left, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, front right, met Saturday alongside the APEC summit in the Vietnamese city of Danang, where world leaders gathered for this family photo.   © Reuters

MANILA -- Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe held talks with the top two Chinese leaders on his Southeast Asian tour, pushing to revive reciprocal diplomatic visits between the two countries that have remain suspended for nearly a decade.

It was a rare opportunity for the Japanese leader to meet with China's president and premier on the same overseas trip. And Tokyo's desire for a detente seems to be reciprocated as the Chinese side also seeks Japan's cooperation for Xi's Belt and Road Initiative, an infrastructure development program stretching throughout Asia.

President Xi Jinping and Abe met for about 45 minutes Saturday in Vietnam on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. The People's Daily newspaper published a photo the next day of the leaders shaking hands in front of their national flags, a reversal from past coverage in which the mouthpiece of China's Communist Party omitted such images.

The talks "were meaningful in that they marked a new start for advancing Sino-Japanese relations," Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters Monday.

Japan-China relations have chilled in recent years, owing partly to Abe predecessor Yoshihiko Noda nationalizing the Senkaku Islands, which China claims and calls the Diaoyu.

Also on Monday, Abe held talks with Premier Li Keqiang here alongside an Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit. Talks began two hours late, but Li claimed that "positive changes are emerging in bilateral relations" and said the neighbors need to maintain a "strong will to improve." The meeting lasted about an hour.

Economic benefits, security risks

Japan sees the economy giving both sides a reason to draw closer. Abe and Li agreed to "deepen and broaden mutually beneficial economic relations," targeting more business interactions and more cooperation on economic operations in other countries.

Teaming with Japan offers many benefits to China as it grapples with slowing economic growth, environmental problems and an aging population. Help from Tokyo on the Belt and Road Initiative would fit the bill, though Abe has long insisted on adopting common international views as a prerequisite for Japan's cooperation. Some worry that aiding Beijing could unnecessarily further China's hegemony.

Stark security divisions remain over Beijing's advances in the South China and East China seas. Tokyo aims to put economic dialogue first while preventing any worsening of security concerns through repeated leadership talks.

Domestic issues also drive Abe to improve relations with China. With his recent Diet lower house election win suggesting a long stint in power, Abe wants to quickly prepare the environment for achieving his dearly held goal of revising Japan's pacifist constitution. But fierce opposition from neighbors such as China and South Korea makes constitutional amendment a difficult proposition.

Long process

Abe sought warmer relations with Xi previously. The two met in November 2014 on the sidelines of an APEC forum, the first such head-of-state meetings between the two nations in three years. This produced an agreement to sustain dialogue, and relations appeared to be thawing. But such talks continued only alongside international meetings.

When the two leaders met in July during the Group of 20 summit in Germany, their political footing was ill-suited to proposing reciprocal visits. But their bases were firmer this weekend, as Abe's election victory and Xi's new term as party leader let them "finally hold forward-looking discussions," in the words of a Japanese government source.

The 40th anniversary of Japan and China's friendship treaty, coming in August 2018, may provide an occasion to get the ball rolling in earnest. Japanese and Chinese heads of state have not visited one another's countries in the same year since 2008.

Should Li visit Japan for trilateral meetings including South Korea, it could become easier to arrange a China visit by Abe. Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono said on domestic television Monday that he hoped for such a three-way meeting to take place in December and January.

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