Japan's Suga set for first high-level China meeting as premier

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga must maintain a delicate balance in relations with China.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga must maintain a delicate balance in relations with China.PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO (BLOOMBERG) - Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is set to welcome his first high-level visitor from China next week, as Foreign Minister Wang Yi arrives in Tokyo on a trip that was expected to also take him to South Korea.

Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi said he will meet Mr Wang for talks during a two-day visit that starts next Tuesday (Nov 24) and will also likely include a courtesy visit with Mr Suga.

Mr Wang will fly to Seoul the next day, the Korea Economic Daily said, and hold talks with South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha.

The visit comes as China expressed anger over regional cooperation seen as pushing back against Beijing expansionism in the region. This includes the so-called Quad meeting of foreign ministers from Japan, the United States, India and Australia that Mr Suga's government hosted in Tokyo last month, a few weeks after he became premier.

Beijing was further irritated when Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison visited Tokyo this week and signed a defence cooperation deal with Mr Suga.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian responded by saying that Beijing was "strongly dissatisfied."

A diplomatic novice, Mr Suga must maintain a delicate balance in relations with China, which is Japan's biggest trading partner, as well as Tokyo's only formal military ally, the US.

Since taking office in September, he has already played host to US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and Mr Morrison - both representing governments that are sparring with China over everything from the coronavirus to trade and data security.

President Donald Trump's election loss to Mr Joe Biden throws a new element of uncertainty into Japan-China ties. Despite its participation in the Quad, Japan has recently avoided the worst of the vitriol or retaliation directed at some other countries by Beijing.

Mr Suga's predecessor, Mr Shinzo Abe, had worked to restore ties with China, which were at their worst in decades when he took over in 2012. That effort was supposed to culminate with a state visit to Japan by President Xi Jinping in April, but the plan was postponed as the coronavirus pandemic worsened.

Some in Mr Suga's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) have called for Mr Xi's visit to be formally cancelled, given China's security clampdown on Hong Kong and growing tensions around East China Sea islands disputed between the two countries.

The government has said only that it is not in a position to organise a state visit during the pandemic.