Japan's Abe hosts landmark Chinese President Xi's visit amid signs of fresh tensions

Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives at Kansai International Airport, ahead of the G-20 summit, in Izumisano, Osaka Prefecture, on June 27, 2019. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

TOKYO (BLOOMBERG) - Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in Japan on Thursday (June 27) for the first such visit in nine years, as Asia's two largest economies seek to preserve economic ties amid trade fights and renewed territorial tensions.

While global attention has focused on Mr Xi's potentially pivotal meeting with US President Donald Trump, the Group of 20 summit in Osaka will also bring China's leader to Japanese soil for the first time. Mr Xi's meetings with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe - including dinner on Thursday in Osaka - mark the latest high point in a years-long effort to repair relations after an old dispute over East China Sea islands flared in 2012.

The visit underscores Mr Abe's struggle to balance Japan's reliance on China as its largest export market and the US as its sole treaty ally. Even as the two leaders prepared for the visit, the number of Chinese military and coast guard ships sailing in and around what Japan sees as its territorial waters in the East China Sea reached its highest level in three years.

Earlier this month, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono defied China's warnings against foreign interference in Hong Kong's protests and said he wanted to see freedom and democracy preserved in the former British colony.

In March, the Chinese Commerce Ministry said that Japanese restrictions on the country's technology could damage bilateral ties.

Mr Kono and his Chinese counterpart, State Councillor Wang Yi, spoke by phone on Wednesday, Japan's foreign ministry said in a statement. "Both sides agreed to do everything to make sure the visit on the occasion of the summit is an opportunity to take Japan-China ties to a new level," the ministry said.

Nonetheless, Mr Abe is anxious to maintain a friendly atmosphere by restoring a pattern of mutual visits that ceased after Japan purchased some of the disputed East China Sea islands in 2012, prompting protests in China.

In October, Mr Abe became the first Japanese prime minister to pay an official visit to China since 2011. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, a top Xi aide, made his first trip to Japan in that role last May.

The last top Chinese leader to visit Japan was then President Hu Jintao in 2010. Mr Xi himself visited in 2009, when he was vice-president. China's ambassador said earlier this month that Mr Xi could make a more formal state visit next year.

Mr Abe might also ask Mr Xi about another milestone trip: the Chinese president's landmark first visit to North Korea last week. Japan, which has been a frequent target of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's nuclear threats over the years, has a floated the possibility of a summit between Mr Abe and Mr Kim, with little to show for it so far.

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