Japan, China to resume high-level economic dialogue after eight years as relations improve

China's top envoy Wang Yi, who was promoted to State Councillor last month, will be chairing the Japan-China High-Level Economic Dialogue along with Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono during his three-day visit.
China's top envoy Wang Yi, who was promoted to State Councillor last month, will be chairing the Japan-China High-Level Economic Dialogue along with Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono during his three-day visit.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

TOKYO - China's top envoy Wang Yi will arrive in Japan on Sunday (April 15) for the first visit by a Chinese foreign minister to Tokyo in nearly 8½ years, amid rapidly improving ties.

Mr Wang, who was promoted to State Councillor last month, will be chairing the Japan-China High-Level Economic Dialogue along with Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono during his three-day visit ending next Tuesday. The dialogue, which was established in 2006, will be held for the first time since 2010.

Relations between Asia's two largest powers have blown hot and cold in recent years, being clouded by historical distrust and a territorial spat over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islets in the East China Sea that were nationalised by Japan in 2012.

The two nations are hoping they can put aside these differences, and mark 40 years of a friendship treaty this year with a series of bilateral visits.

On Monday, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang had told a visiting Japanese delegation led by former chief cabinet secretary Yohei Kono that Beijing "will cherish the momentum and bring (bilateral ties) back on the right track".

Japan has pledged to work with China on its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, despite having at first expressed doubts. A conflict communication hotline to prevent aerial and maritime clashes over the East China Sea may be agreed on as soon as next month. The two nations have also agreed to resume bilateral military education exchanges after a six-year hiatus, with China due to dispatch personnel to Japan for a course starting in September.

These are among the issues that experts say will be on the agenda during talks between Mr Wang and Mr Kono.

"We hope this visit will strengthen mutual trust, build consensus and manage differences between the two sides, thus further consolidating the momentum of improving China-Japan relations," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said in Beijing on Wednesday.

There will be much to discuss on trade - including the potential damage of a trade war between the United States and China. Beijing might also bring up Japan's proposed filing to join a US complaint to the World Trade Organisation on China's intellectual property practices.

Both China and Japan, vocal proponents for free trade, are in the midst of ironing out a trilateral agreement with South Korea, for which the 13th round of talks were held in Seoul last month.

Dr Shin Kawashima, an expert on Sino-Japan ties at the University of Tokyo, also noted that Japan might share its experience having been engaged in a trade clash with the US in the 1980s.

North Korea will also likely be discussed, following a surprise summit between Chinese President Xi Jinping and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un last month.

Mr Wang's visit follows Mr Kono's fence-mending trip to Beijing in January - though the positive mood was soured a day after his return when Tokyo had to scramble jets to intercept a Chinese Y-9 intelligence-gathering aircraft.

Dr Takashi Suzuki of Aichi Prefectural University's Department of Chinese Studies warned against being overly optimistic as the bilateral cracks are more than skin-deep.

"We shouldn't overestimate the improvement," he told The Straits Times. "The history problem and territorial dispute are strategic, long-term issues that will not be resolved even in five to 10 years. Both governments will need to control the risks, while keeping a rational and realistic attitude to each other."

Mr Wang will also lay the groundwork for Premier Li's visit to Tokyo for a trilateral summit alongside Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae In, likely on May 9.

It is Japan's turn to host the much-delayed summit, which in the last two years had been postponed as a result of bilateral spats and domestic political scandals.