TOKYO - Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono will strive to strengthen Sino-Japan ties when he meets Chinese counterpart Wang Yi on his two-day visit to Beijing starting on Saturday (Jan 27).
It will be the first bilateral visit by a Japanese foreign minister since Mr Kono's predecessor Fumio Kishida went to Beijing in April 2016. Mr Kono is also slated to meet Chinese State Councillor Yang Jiechi.
Bilateral ties have been improving since Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping vowed a "fresh start" last November. Yet two recent events have poured cold water on the slight detente.
On Thursday, the Japanese government launched a permanent exhibition that features historical documents to bolster its claims to the Senkaku/Diaoyu islets in the East China Sea, which are controlled by Japan and claimed by China.
This prompted Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying to retort on Friday: "Whatever Japan is doing will not change, even in the slightest way, the objective fact that Diaoyu belongs to China. We are resolute in protecting our territorial sovereignty."
More significantly, China had for the first time deployed a stealth nuclear submarine into waters near the disputed islands this month.
While Tokyo slammed the act as one that "unilaterally raises tensions", Beijing said it rejects Japan's protests of "incursions" as it was just exercising its sovereign rights.
A senior Japanese Foreign Ministry official told reporters at a background briefing on Friday that while these are challenges to bilateral ties, Tokyo hopes to forge a candid environment so that both nations can "frankly discuss and properly address" such matters.
Yet with both nations unyielding in their respective positions, they will need to find ways to ensure the dicey territorial spat will not complicate ties in other areas, Professor Shin Kawashima, an expert in Sino-Japan ties at the University of Tokyo, told The Straits Times.
He said: "These recent incidents show that China will never change its attitude on the islets. Japan, too, is sending its own message that it is not budging on its position."
This year marks 40 years since the two nations inked a Treaty of Peace and Friendship, and Japan hopes Mr Kono's visit will ease the ground for more high-level exchanges.
Mr Abe hopes to hold the much-delayed trilateral summit around spring this year, with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and South Korean President Moon Jae In due to visit Tokyo. While meant to be an annual affair, the last talks were held in 2015 with the event being repeatedly thwarted by bilateral spats and other domestic issues.
Japan, too, wants to achieve reciprocal visits by Mr Abe and Mr Xi this year. Both leaders took power in late 2012 but have yet to hold official visits to each other's countries. In comparison, Mr Moon, who came to power in May last year, has already been to Beijing.
Mr Kono will ask China to do more beyond implementing United Nations sanctions to make North Korea give up its ballistic missile and nuclear programmes.
Also on the agenda is how the world's second and third-largest economies can work more closely together to forge better business and economic ties.
On free trade, the two foreign ministers are expected to discuss the 16-nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) treaty that also involves the 10 Asean nations, Australia, India, New Zealand and South Korea.
They will also discuss how to move forward on a trilateral free trade agreement with South Korea, following the 12th round of talks in Tokyo in April last year, and look into how China and Japan can work together to meet infrastructure needs in other countries.