Suga on Wednesday raised concern with visiting Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi over what Tokyo sees as moves by Beijing to undermine Japan’s control of the contested Senkaku Islands, calling for China to take “positive action” on the maritime dispute. The uninhabited islands, known as the Diaoyus in China, are also claimed by Beijing and Taipei.
During a 20-minute meeting with Wang at his office in Tokyo, Suga also expressed concern over the situation in Hong Kong, where Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law in June that critics say undermines freedom in the city, Kyodo News reported, citing the Japanese government.
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“A stable relationship between the two countries is important not only for Japan and China but also for the region and the international community,” Suga reportedly told Wang during the meeting.
Wang told reporters afterwards that he had relayed Chinese President Xi Jinping’s message that he wanted to build “good working relations” with Suga, and that the East China Sea dispute should not stand in the way of this.
The meeting was the first high-level exchange between Beijing and Tokyo since the new Japanese leader took office in September, and marked the end of Wang’s two-day visit to Japan.
His trip came as Beijing is seeking to reaffirm diplomatic ties with the new Japanese administration and to gauge Tokyo’s attitude on the China-Japan-US triangle amid a leadership transition in Washington.
During talks between Wang and his counterpart Toshimitsu Motegi on Tuesday, the two sides agreed to resume coronavirus-hit business travel this month and to set up a hotline for managing their maritime disputes in the East China Sea by the end of the year.
They also agreed to hold an economic ministers’ meeting next year to strengthen cooperation on environmental protection, health care, e-commerce and innovation, Kyodo reported.
Wang, who will travel to South Korea next, on Tuesday said China and Japan had also agreed to move forward negotiations on a free-trade deal between the three countries, after a mega trade deal was signed with 12 other Asia-Pacific economies this month.
The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is the first multilateral trade pact China has signed. Last week, Xi also signalled Beijing’s interest in joining the Japan-led Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).
Analysts say these developments suggest efforts to build on improving relations between the two East Asian rivals following decades of animosity over territorial and historical disputes, and at a time when China’s ties with the US have rapidly deteriorated.
But a key barometer will be whether Japan will still welcome a planned visit by Xi that has been delayed by the coronavirus pandemic – it is not known if the plan was discussed during Wang’s trip.
Xi was due to visit Japan in spring. But negative public opinion towards China has been rising in the country over the pandemic, Beijing’s aggressive posturing near the Diaoyus and its handling of anti-government protests in Hong Kong, leading to questions over whether Tokyo should roll out the red carpet for the Chinese leader.
As Tokyo waits for indications of future policy direction from the incoming administration of US president-elect Joe Biden, Chinese analysts say Xi’s visit could be further delayed.
“Japan’s policy towards China has always depended on the US’ China policy … so the possibility of improved ties between China and the US under a Biden administration could mean more momentum for Sino-Japanese ties to improve,” said Pang Zhongying, an international relations expert at the Ocean University of China.
During their meeting, Wang and Motegi discussed issues surrounding US-China relations for a “considerable time”, according to Kyodo, quoting a Japanese foreign ministry official who did not give further details.
Suga was among the first world leaders to speak by phone with the US president-elect, a conversation in which Biden reportedly provided assurance that Article 5 of the Japan-US Security Treaty would be applied to the Diaoyus, meaning Washington would defend Tokyo if a conflict broke out over the islands.
“Biden’s assurance has put Japan in an advantageous position in countering China, but their common interest in economic cooperation will bring Japan closer to China,” according to Liu Jiangyong, a specialist in China-Japan relations at Tsinghua University.
“We are continuing to see the dissonance in Sino-Japanese relations in which our economic ties have become much warmer than our political ties,” he said. “How far we can go with Japan depends on the future direction of China-US relations under Biden.”
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