Japanese envoy in Beijing, but 'Sino-Japan summit unlikely'

JAPANESE Vice-Foreign Minister Akitaka Saiki is in Beijing for a two-day visit amid continued tensions between China and Japan over a territorial spat in the East China Sea.

Mr Saiki's visit comes after Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expressed hopes yesterday for high-level talks involving the foreign ministers or top leaders of both sides, possibly at the G-20 summit in Russia in September.

"Sino-Japanese relations are among the most important bilateral relations. (We) should return to the starting point of strategic, mutually beneficial ties and work jointly to improve ties," Mr Abe said yesterday of the visit, in comments carried by China's official Xinhua news agency.

Mr Saiki left for Beijing yesterday and is slated to meet his Chinese counterpart, Mr Zhang Yesui, as part of a courtesy call but no other planned meetings have been reported.

An adviser to Mr Abe, Mr Isao Iijima, said on Sunday that he had met officials close to China's President Xi Jinping when he visited China secretly earlier this month.

A Japan-China summit was not far away, he added.

Mr Iijima's assertion has been questioned by observers in both Japan and China.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei yesterday denied that Chinese government officials had any contact with him, Xinhua reported.

"As far as I know, there were no official activities during his visit," Mr Hong said.

The Asahi Shimbun daily yesterday reported that a breakthrough looked unlikely given that even working-level Sino-Japan talks were stalled. Instead, Tokyo was forced to look into reopening diplomatic channels, it added.

Chinese analysts who spoke to The Straits Times were also not hopeful of a Sino-Japan summit any time soon.

For the Chinese, a prerequisite for dialogue is that Tokyo has to admit a dispute exists over the ownership of small islands called Diaoyu by China and Senkaku by Japan, say analysts.

But Mr Abe has called instead for a meeting with no pre-condition, they noted.

Sino-Japan expert Huang Dahui of Renmin University said Mr Saiki's visit was meant to show that Japan was doing its part to mend ties with China.

United States Vice-President Joe Biden told Mr Abe last week that Japan should try to ease tensions with China over the disputed isles, he noted.

"Abe has been very hardline towards China. At the same time, with pressure to maintain regional stability, he also has to show that Japan is willing to have dialogue with China. This then pushes the responsibility to China," Professor Huang said.

Sino-Japan relations are at their worst in more than 40 years after Japan nationalised the disputed isles last September. Ties were further strained after the hawkish Mr Abe took office last December. While he has visited seven of the 10 Asean countries since, he has yet to visit China and South Korea.