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China-Japan relations

Xi Jinping likely to make official Japan visit next year as two sides try to mend fences

Beijing said to be considering trip, to coincide with G20 summit in Osaka

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 May, 2018, 9:00pm
UPDATED : Friday, 04 May, 2018, 11:33pm

Chinese President Xi Jinping is likely to make an official visit to Japan next year as the traditional Asian rivals step up efforts to resolve their differences.

Citing diplomatic sources, Kyodo reported on Friday that Beijing was considering the trip, which would be the first by a Chinese leader since 2008 and would take place when he attends the Group of 20 summit of developed and emerging economies in Osaka next June.

Xi and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have not held talks in the format of an official visit by either side since both men took office in 2012, although they have met at least seven times on various multilateral occasions.

The report came just days before Premier Li Keqiang is due to travel to Japan next week, the first official visit at that level since his predecessor Wen Jiabao’s 2011 trip.

Li will also attend a trilateral summit, the first in more than two years, with Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae-in to discuss North Korea and other regional issues.

Xi meanwhile spoke with Abe by telephone on Friday, with Xi making positive remarks about recent moves by Tokyo to improve relations with China, state broadcaster CCTV reported. Xi also discussed the improved situation on the Korean peninsula and called on Tokyo to do more for regional stability.

Pundits said Xi’s visit, if confirmed, could be a watershed moment for Sino-Japanese relations, at a time when China’s rise and recent diplomatic developments on the Korean peninsula are tilting the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific region.

Beijing and Tokyo have been working in the past year to improve their troubled ties over China’s rapid ascendance in the region, territorial disputes in the East China Sea and their wartime history.

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In a sign of warming relations, there have been frequent high-level diplomatic exchanges between the world’s second and third largest economies in recent months.

They included the first bilateral visit by a Chinese foreign minister for nine years, when Wang Yi, also a state councillor, went to Tokyo last month. It came less than three months after his Japanese counterpart Taro Kono visited Beijing in January.

During Wang’s trip, Kono said both sides had agreed to mutual visits by Xi and Abe, which could start as early as autumn.

A Japanese diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, confirmed that Tokyo was working to arrange the reciprocal visits by Abe and Xi in the coming months after Li’s Japan trip.

Xi’s state visit would ideally coincide with the G20 summit, the diplomat said, because “it may be too hectic for Japan to arrange two separate visits for Xi”.

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Wang Ping, a Japanese expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said Abe, mired in domestic political scandals and growing pressure from US President Donald Trump over trade and other bilateral issues, was keen to repair strained ties with Beijing.

“Despite all the differences and challenges, I am quite optimistic that bilateral ties will further improve, culminating in Xi’s official visit to Japan after Abe’s first China trip since 2014,” she said.

Wang noted that Abe, whose popularity is plunging at home while Japan’s standing in regional and global diplomacy slides, has prioritised improving ties with China and repeatedly invited Xi to Japan in recent months.

During a meeting with Xi on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vietnamese resort city Da Nang in November, Abe hailed “a fresh start” to bilateral ties.

Meanwhile, at a meeting with a delegation from the Japan-China Friendship Parliamentarians’ Union on Thursday, Xi’s most trusted ally and China’s top legislator Li Zhanshu urged Japan to treat China in an objective and rational way, as a partner rather than a threat.

Li, chairman of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, also called on the Japanese side to remember history, learn lessons from it and avoid repeating mistakes while helping get bilateral ties back on track.