As this year marks the 40th anniversary of the signing of a bilateral friendship treaty between Japan and China, Japan has taken a step toward stabilizing relations between the two countries with Foreign Minister Taro Kono's visit to China.
On Jan. 28, Kono met his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, Chinese State Councilor and top diplomat Yang Jiechi, and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in succession, and despite the busy Sunday schedule, China did its utmost to welcome him -- a sign that officials desire better relations.
Wang stated that improvement and development of relations between Japan and China would translate to benefits for both countries. Kono, meanwhile, responded, "We want to improve overall ties this year."
In the series of meetings, officials agreed to strengthen economic relations between the two counties and promote human exchange, while also confirming the importance of reciprocal visits by the two countries' leaders.
Following bilateral talks between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of a summit in November last year, there has been a definite trend toward improved bilateral relations.
However, alongside such positive moves, the two sides need to swiftly address issues that are creating tension. Japan intends to cooperate to a certain degree with the "One Belt, One Road" initiative proposed by China, but there remain doubts about the openness and transparency of the project, and at present, moves have gone no further than private-sector backing for business development in third countries, for example. Concerns have also been raised over potential military projects involved in the initiative. At the same time, China harbors concerns about the "Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy" that Japan has advocated, as it centers on Japan, the United States, Australia and India while excluding China.
Japan and China have placed emphasis on mutually beneficial relations. In order to avoid a conflict of interests, there is a need for the countries to discuss cooperation in the region and in the international economy.
As for the issue surrounding the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture, Japan lodged a protest with China after a Chinese military submarine was detected in the contiguous zone around the islands, and asked China to prevent a recurrence. Relations between Tokyo and Beijing cooled after Japan nationalized the islands in 2012, and the following year China introduced an Air Defense Identification Zone over a large portion of the East China Sea.
During the latest round of talks, the two sides agreed to make efforts for the early implementation of a "maritime and aerial communication mechanism" to avoid accidental military conflicts in the East China Sea. They should work to quickly implement this system.
Denuclearization of the Korean peninsula is beneficial for both Japan and China. In order to achieve this it is vital that countries completely follow through on U.N. sanctions against North Korea. Maritime smuggling to avoid sanctions has recently surfaced as a new problem. Tokyo and Beijing probably need to share information in this sphere and monitor the seas.
In addressing the issues, it is essential for the leaders to confirm matters together. A trilateral summit in Japan with China and South Korea is expected in the spring, which will be followed by a likely visit to China by Prime Minister Abe in the autumn, and a possible visit to Japan by President Xi. It is important to secure a steady stream of reciprocal visits by the two leaders.