Newly elected Tokyo governor Yoichi Masuzoe yesterday announced he would visit Beijing next week on a trip that will be closely watched in China and Japan for ways to mend rocky bilateral relations.
The trip comes on the heels of a visit by Hu Deping - widely seen as a special envoy from Beijing - to Japan, where the "princeling" held a private meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last week.
The two visits are seen as back-channel efforts by the Asian neighbours to repair ties amid a lack of high-level exchanges since maritime disputes and historical grievances caused the bilateral relationship to plunge to a new low. Scholars, however, remain sceptical that a diplomatic breakthrough is imminent.
Masuzoe said yesterday that he would visit Beijing between Thursday and Saturday next week.
Boosted by support from Abe's administration, Masuzoe won a landslide victory in February and replaced Naoki Inose, who resigned in December because of a loan scandal, as Tokyo governor.
The former health minister said last month that he wished to improve the relationship between China and Japan through city-level diplomacy and that he would like to co-operate with Beijing in tackling the city's air pollution.
Masuzoe will be the first Tokyo governor to visit Beijing in 18 years. From 1999 to 2012, the Japanese capital was governed by Shintaro Ishihara, whose campaign to nationalise a set of disputed islands in the East China Sea angered Beijing and caused diplomatic ructions that severely strained ties.
While in Beijing, Masuzoe is expected to meet municipal-level officials. "This is at most an attempt to improve the relationship through city-level exchanges," said Zhou Yongsheng , a professor at China Foreign Affairs University. "It wouldn't be wise to expect a breakthrough in the near future. Abe's visit to the Yasukuni Shrine has severely damaged bilateral relationships."
The Japanese prime minister's visit to the shrine in Tokyo, which honours the nation's war dead including 14 war criminals from the second world war, was condemned by China and South Korea, which see the shrine as honouring wartime atrocities. Beijing said Abe would not be welcome in China.
Since taking office in December 2012, Abe has not held a summit with President Xi Jinping despite repeated attempts to arrange one. Both China and Japan say they are open to diplomatic discussions and each blames the other side for closing the door to talks.
Diplomatic sources said the Japanese foreign ministry had approached various Chinese dignitaries to visit Japan in an effort to repair ties. All but Hu Deping, son of late Communist Party general secretary Hu Yaobang , turned down its invitations, they said. Hu's background and ties with Xi prompted hopes he would be a direct messenger between the nations' leaders.
Japan's Kyodo news agency yesterday cited unnamed sources as saying Hu met Abe at the prime minister's official residence last Tuesday during his week-long visit. They were believed to have exchanged views on the bilateral relationship, it reported.
In another low-level exchange, Vice-Premier Wang Yang yesterday received a Japanese delegation led by retired politician Yohei Kono.