China and Japan must continue improving their bilateral relationship for the sake of economic self-interest and regional stability. Recognition of this is implicit in the recent increase in top-level, face-to-face exchanges. It is important that such regular dialogue be maintained. So the news that the first overseas trip by Japan's new prime minister, Taro Aso, will be to Beijing is welcome. Sources in Tokyo say he is planning a trip this month for the Asia-Europe Meeting that would include talks with President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao . At the same time he will mark the anniversary of his first month in office by joining a ceremony to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Sino-Japanese peace and friendship treaty.
This will help ease lingering worries about what his election means to the relationship. As foreign minister under former prime ministers Junichiro Koizumi and Shinzo Abe, he never visited the country. As an unapologetic nationalistic hawk, he has defended controversial visits by political leaders, including himself, to Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine, which honours war dead including convicted war criminals. As a result he was seen as anti-China. He is from a political family linked to past Japanese aggression, and is heir to a mining company that once employed slave labour in Korea. Under Mr Koizumi's successor, however, Mr Aso helped oversee a thaw in the bilateral relationship that reflected popular opinion and business realities, given that China is now Japan's biggest trading partner.
Japanese and Chinese leaders therefore have much to discuss. In the light of the Chinese tainted-milk scandal, food safety will be a key item on the agenda. Only last week Japanese officials raised the issue of contaminated Chinese-made dumplings that made people ill in both countries with China's ambassador. But Tokyo's new chief cabinet secretary also told the envoy that Mr Aso's policy was to improve the bilateral relationship.
The trip will be timely. It also follows the innovative deal in July jointly to exploit gas fields straddling long-disputed waters in the East China Sea. That shows that Japan and China can settle their differences and work together for regional stability and prosperity.