Japan, China agree to set up conflict hotline for East China Sea

TOKYO • Japan and China agreed yesterday to set up a "conflict communication mechanism", which includes a hotline, to prevent maritime and aerial incidents over disputed islands in the East China Sea.

Under the deal, which was first mooted in 2007, a hotline will be set up within 30 days for senior defence officials on both sides to talk to each other, in order to avert incidents involving their naval vessels or military aircraft. Japan's public broadcaster NHK said the hotline will take effect on June 8.

This was one of 10 agreements inked between Japan and China after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Premier Li Keqiang met yesterday for 1hr 45min, hours after a trilateral summit meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae In.

Mr Li's visit coincided with the 40th year of a friendship treaty between Japan and China, and Mr Abe yesterday accepted an invitation to visit Beijing at a "mutually convenient time" in what would be his first official visit to China since he took office in December 2012. Japanese Foreign Ministry press secretary Norio Maruyama said the visit is expected to be this year.

In their banquet toast, Mr Li and Mr Abe reminisced about how they had met 30 years ago in Tokyo as political neophytes. Over the decades, however, bilateral ties between their countries have gone through ups and downs, reaching a low in 2012, when Tokyo nationalised a group of disputed islands in the East China Sea, known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China.

In recent years, Japanese jets have had to scramble to intercept Chinese warplanes flying through politically sensitive airspace near Japan as Beijing raised its military assertiveness. Tensions also flared in January when Beijing dispatched an advanced stealth nuclear submarine into waters near the disputed islands for the first time.

It is understood that the two nations skirted any mention of the islands in their deal yesterday. The other agreements are in fields such as technology, social security, currency swaps and movie co-productions. They also agreed to study China's eventual lifting of restrictions on food imports from Fukushima, where a nuclear power plant suffered an accident in 2011, and begin dialogue on China's ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Mr Abe, who has only recently been open about Japan's participation in the BRI on a project-by-project basis, said the first meeting will take place during his China visit.

As a measure of goodwill, Mr Li announced China would present Japan with a pair of endangered crested ibises. A pair was last gifted to Tokyo in 2007.

Dr Shin Kawashima, a Sino-Japan expert from the University of Tokyo, told The Straits Times that it marked a "certain level of achievement" for the two countries to reach such wide-ranging agreements, but wondered to what extent they could "concretely" set aside their differences.

Mr Li will today pay a state call to Emperor Akihito, and attend a reception to mark the friendship treaty, before heading to Hokkaido, which has close exchanges with China and is a popular destination for Chinese tourists.

Walter Sim

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 10, 2018, with the headline 'Japan, China agree to set up conflict hotline for East China Sea'. Print Edition | Subscribe