October 12, 2017 10:00 am JST

Editorial: It's time for the leaders of Japan and China to trade visits

Tokyo and Beijing can build on momentum to further improve ties and trust

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attends an event hosted by the Chinese Embassy in Tokyo on Sept. 28 to mark 45 years of bilateral ties and celebrate China's National Day. (Photo by Maho Obata)

After a long impasse in their 45-year diplomatic relationship, Japan and China are now holding meaningful government exchanges. While this is partly because the North Korea situation has made close communication between Tokyo and Beijing extremely important, the livelier interaction between the two countries, including in the private sector, is a welcome development.

We believe it is now time for the next step.

On Sept. 28, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attended a reception in Tokyo hosted by the Chinese Embassy to mark the normalization of bilateral ties and to celebrate China's National Day, which commemorates the founding of the People's Republic of China. Abe became the first Japanese prime minister in 15 years to take part in this annual event. He also exchanged congratulatory messages with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, the first exchange of such messages in 10 years.

Speaking at the event, Abe said he would like to have Li and South Korean President Moon Jae-in visit Japan for a three-way summit by the end of this year. After that, Abe is looking to visit China in hopes of paving the way for Chinese President Xi Jinping to make his first official visit to Japan.

Tokyo's nationalization of the Senkaku Islands -- a part of the Japanese prefecture of Okinawa and known as the Diaoyu in China -- in September 2012 triggered massive waves of anti-Japan protests across China. These protests, which often turned violent, caused serious damage to Japanese companies' manufacturing and commercial operations in the country. Following the incident, official Chinese vessels began making frequent incursions into Japan's territorial waters. The Senkaku issue has yet to be resolved. We would like to continue strongly urging China to exercise restraint on the matter.

At the same time, no major anti-Japan rallies have taken place in China in the five years since President Xi came to power in November 2012. Abe and Xi, through several face-to-face talks, have tentatively explored the possibility of mending bilateral relations. We believe that now is the time for Tokyo and Beijing to deepen their relationship by resuming reciprocal visits by their respective leaders.

PERFECT OPPORTUNITY A looming snap election has raised the uncertainty factor in Japanese politics. China too is in the midst of a season of politics as the Chinese Communist Party prepares to kick off its twice-a-decade party congress on Oct. 18, at which new members of the seven-person Politburo Standing Committee, the party's most powerful body, will be chosen. Experience shows that China's top leaders tend to take a hard-line stance against Japan, citing historical and other issues, when their power base at home is less than solid. A close eye must be kept on Beijing's actions in this regard.

That being said, the world's second- and third-largest economies are dependent on each other no matter who is at the helm of their governments. It is vital that the two countries maintain a framework under which their leaders can exchange visits. The success or failure of such a framework directly impacts the lives of their citizens. On the national security front, too, Japan and China face the shared threat of North Korea's nuclear and missile program. We hope that Japan's leader will ensure good communication with Beijing, and also cooperate effectively with U.S. President Donald Trump, who is slated to visit Japan in November.

Next year will mark the 40th anniversary of the signing of the Japan-China peace and friendship treaty in 1978. When the 30th anniversary was celebrated in 2008, then-Chinese President Hu Jintao came to Japan. Next year's anniversary is a good opportunity that should not be missed. Tokyo must first make a three-way summit in Japan a reality, and then set its sights on reciprocal visits by the leaders of Japan and China.

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