Japanese team in China to mend ties

178-member business group meets Chinese Vice-Premier

WITH relations still tense between China and Japan and a summit between their top leaders unlikely, businessmen and academics from both sides are stepping in to mend ties.

A 178-member Japanese business delegation visited Beijing yesterday, the largest business group to visit China since bilateral ties soured due to territorial disputes over the Diaoyu/Senkaku isles in September last year. The visit was organised by the Japan-China Economic Association, which has visited China yearly since 1975 but shelved their trip last year due to the disputes.

Delegation members led by Toyota Motor honorary chairman Fujio Cho met Chinese Vice-Premier Wang Yang yesterday. But their wish to meet top Chinese leaders Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang is unlikely to be realised, Japanese media reported.

China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said yesterday that the Japanese delegation would meet unspecified national leaders. "We will exchange views on Sino-Japanese ties, especially on things like economic and trade ties," he said.

The visit comes after a low-key symposium was organised in Beijing last month by the China-Japan Friendship Association headed by former Chinese state councillor Tang Jiaxuan, to mark the 35th anniversary of a bilateral friendship treaty.

Japanese media reported that the celebration, held two months after the actual anniversary on Aug 12, was initiated by the Chinese and a sign that China had softened its attitude towards Japan in business and trade areas.

The Japanese business group visit also follows a visit in late September to Japan by 10 Chinese corporate captains led by Mr Chang Zhenming, chair of the state-owned Citic Group.

In recent months, China's local governments have also started visiting Japan to attract investments. Observers say the visits show that both sides hope to put a stop to deteriorating relations, at least when it comes to business.

"It used to be 'politics cold, economics warm' sometimes (with regard to ties) but what's changing now is that both fronts are cold, as the economic interdependence that underpins bilateral relations comes under threat," said commentator Wang Shaozhe in the Liberation Daily, mouthpiece of the People's Liberation Army.

Japanese investment in China has dropped 36.6 per cent for the period from January to September compared with a year before, while China-Japan trade fell 7 per cent for the first 10 months of this year to US$255.9 billion (S$318.8 billion), going by Chinese figures.

There are signs though that things are improving slightly. Sales of Japanese cars and other products are back on track, while Chinese tourists are also gradually returning to Japan, Bloomberg reported.

"I saw many Chinese tourists on the streets. Last year, you can hardly see any," said Beijing businessman Ma Youliang, 47, about his visit to Japan last month. Sales of his electric converters to Japan have gone up this year despite the heated rhetoric from both governments, he told The Straits Times.

Scholars from both sides are also trying to do their part. Last month, China studies scholars in Japan set up an advocacy group for better relations between the two East Asian states, which have seen relations hit the lowest in 40 years after Tokyo put the disputed isles under national control in September last year. The group has signed up at least 156 Japanese scholars and is planning a symposium on Sino-Japanese relations in Japan next March.

"Between the people of both countries, the feeling of hatred against each other has become stronger. Now is the time for us to act in a calm manner without being influenced by temporary intense emotions," Sinologist Kazuko Mori, professor emeritus of Waseda University, was quoted as saying by the Asahi Shimbun daily.

hoaili@sph.com.sg