China's top diplomat Wang Yi visits Japan amid regional tensions

China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi will fly to South Korea after Japan, for talks that will include North Korea.
China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi will fly to South Korea after Japan, for talks that will include North Korea.PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO (REUTERS) - Japan and China agreed on Tuesday (Nov 24) to continue communications on issues around the East China Sea where the two countries are in dispute, Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi said.

Mr Motegi made the comment after a meeting with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in Tokyo.

At a joint press briefing, Mr Wang who is China’s Foreign Minister, said he would like to make the East China Sea “the sea of peace” through cooperation with Japan.

The two countries agreed to ease restrictions on business travels imposed in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic by the end of this month.

Mr Wang’s visit marks the first such high-level trip since Japan picked a new leader in September and comes amid mounting concerns over Beijing’s growing assertiveness in the region.

Mr Wang could make a courtesy call on Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who has so far sought to balance Japan's deep economic reliance on China with addressing security worries.

While Mr Suga has steered clear of the harsh anti-China rhetoric used by Japan's ally the United States, he has moved to counter its influence by deepening ties with Australia and making his first overseas trip to Vietnam and Indonesia.

Japan has also encouraged its companies to diversify their supply chains and reduce reliance on China by bringing production home or moving it to South-east Asia.

"There are various pending issues between the two countries, so through high-level meetings, it is important to reach solutions to each issue one by one," Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi told reporters on Monday before the bilateral meeting. 

He added he would have a "frank exchange" of views on bilateral relations with Mr Wang, including on how to resume traffic between the two countries during the pandemic.

Japanese media reported that Mr Motegi would also raise concerns about China's beefed-up activity in the East China Sea.

While encouraging its companies to diversify supply chains away from China, Japan is getting closer with Beijing through trade agreements. 

Earlier this month, China signed the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) with other 14 economies including US allies Japan and South Korea, but the United States was not party to the deal.

It was the first multilateral trade deal for China, the first bilateral tariff reduction arrangement between Japan and China, and the first time China, Japan and South Korea have been in a single free-trade bloc.

Mr Wang will fly to South Korea after Japan, for talks that will include North Korea.

"For China, this visit is important for re-planning a strategy towards the two US-allies under the coming Biden administration," said Associate Professor Toshiya Takahashi, an international relations expert at Shoin University. 

The United States, a key security backer of Japan and South Korea, is going through a drawn-out leadership transition to new president-elect Joe Biden. 

Experts said Mr Wang’s diplomacy could help lay the groundwork for a trilateral summit with Japan and South Korea to push forward trade partnerships. 

Chinese President Xi Jinping said China would "actively consider" signing up for another regional free trade pact, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). 

Japan, a key member state of the pact and next year’s chair, aims to expand the CPTPP, potentially paving ways for China to join after US President Donald Trump walked away from the pact. 

Mr Motegi, the Japanese foreign minister, said on Friday China’s expression of interests was "welcome" but it needs further assessment in accordance with the pact’s rules.