China and Japan have agreed to resume coronavirus-hit business travel by the end of next month and to forge ahead with multilateral trade deals, as they seek to strengthen ties ahead of the incoming Biden administration.
The announcement came as Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister wrapped up a visit to Japan on Wednesday, the first high-level delegation from Beijing since Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga took office in September.
Before the pandemic, Chinese president Xi Jinping had been expected to make a state visit to Japan this year to cement a 2018 reset in bilateral relations, as Beijing moved to strengthen regional ties amid a spiralling spat with the US over trade, technology and security.
During the two-day visit, Mr Wang held meetings with Japan’s top leadership, including Mr Suga, foreign minister Toshimitsu Motegi and chief cabinet secretary Katsunobu Kato.
The Japanese ministers all raised concerns about incursions by Chinese vessels around the disputed Senkaku or Diaoyu islands — which both countries claim — while nonetheless signalling that Tokyo is keen to improve its relationship with Beijing.
According to a statement by the Japanese government, Mr Suga told Mr Yang he was pleased about the resumption of business travel and wanted a “stable bilateral relationship”, but he raised the Senkaku issue, China’s ban on Japanese beef and the security crackdown in Hong Kong.
But Japan’s new prime minister is likely to want a strong economic relationship with China in order to help his country to recover from the Covid-19 shock, and he may therefore seek to play down the more contentious security relationship.
Earlier this month, US president-elect Joe Biden said Washington’s security guarantees extended to the disputed islands, in a sign that he would be willing to challenge China’s territorial claims in the region.
Zhou Yongsheng, an academic at the Institute of International Relations in China, said Mr Suga’s government would be smart to downplay the territorial dispute in the name of advancing the broader bilateral relationship. “This is an unsolvable problem and [raising it] will only intensify conflict,” he said.
He added that it “shows that Japan wants to protect its own interests independent of the US” and represented an opportunity to push forward regional trade deals.
Mr Yang and his Japanese counterpart, Mr Motegi, also pledged fast progress on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership trade pact, one of the largest free trade deals in history, which was signed by 15 Asia-Pacific nations earlier this month.
Mr Xi this week expressed interest in joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, a move that would potentially give China even greater influence in regional trade as part of previously US-backed agreement abandoned by the Trump administration. Japan is already a member.
Additional reporting by Emma Zhou in Beijing