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Shinzo Abe

Belt and road could be a way for Japan and China to repair ties

A letter from the Japanese prime minister to President Xi Jinping delivered at the Belt and Road Forum is a welcome step towards improving relations

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 May, 2017, 1:04am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 May, 2017, 1:05am

Building mutual trust is key to a sustained improvement in Sino-Japanese relations. Even with the utmost patience, the odds are usually tilted against it by unresolved historical issues, such as the disputed sovereignty of the Diaoyus – known as the Senkaku islands in Japan – and Tokyo’s refusal to own up to the country’s military past. Bilateral relations have also been complicated recently by warming ties between Japan and Taiwan. The disclosure of a conciliatory personal letter from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to President Xi Jinping, delivered on Abe’s behalf after the recent Belt and Road Forum in Beijing, is therefore a welcome development.

According to media reports, Abe’s letter said the two sides should arrange mutual state visits at appropriate times, an indication that Tokyo wants to create a climate for improved ties. Japan also hoped to strengthen cooperation with China on the Beijing-led “Belt and Road Initiative” to boost Asia’s global economic ties, over which many of Japan’s businessmen have so far shown more enthusiasm than its nationalist political leaders.

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The first open sign that Abe wanted to improve ties with Beijing, amid tensions over North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes, came in the announcement last month that Toshihiro Nikai, secretary general of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party and No 2 in the party only to Abe, would attend the Belt and Road Forum. Nikai, known for his close links to China, said the North Korean issue meant mutual understanding between Tokyo – an important US ally – and Beijing was vital.

It is not clear whether Abe’s gesture was also prompted by the improvement in US-China relations, indicated by the attendance at the forum of Matt Pottinger, US National Security Council senior director for East Asia, who announced an American belt and road government-business working group. The belt and road plan could be a starting point for China and Japan in the further normalisation of their relations. That would be in keeping with Xi’s assurance that the initiative is non-political and focused on shared benefit. If it is instrumental in paving the way for talks between Japan and China, that would be a bonus for the region.