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As Japan seeks better ties, China may play that card against US

VLADIVOSTOK/TOKYO/BEIJING -- Prime Minister Shinzo Abe emphasized his desire to improve his country's ties with China during a summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping held in Russia's Far Eastern city of Vladivostok, but Beijing apparently wants to play the "Japan card" against the United States in their escalating trade war.

"It's important for the two countries with major responsibilities for peace and prosperity in the region and the rest of the world to maintain close communication," Abe said in the summit on Sept. 12, indicating a strong willingness to realize mutual visits by leaders of Japan and China and improve the bilateral relationship.

For Abe, "a new phase of the Japan-China relationship" is one of the foreign policy goals he announced in his bid to win a third consecutive term as president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in the Sept. 20 election. He intends to visit China on Oct. 23, the day the Japan-China peace and friendship treaty took effect 40 years ago, and agree with Xi on the start of negotiations to formulate a "fifth basic document" between the two countries.

Four existing basic documents, including the 1972 joint communique issued when the two countries normalized their diplomatic ties, have served as the basis for their bilateral relationship. In the fifth document, Japan wants to describe how to cooperate with China, now an international major power, on issues concerning not only Northeast Asia but also the rest of the world, to bring about peace and stability.

However, China keeps sending government ships around the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, which Japan controls and China claims, and there are no prospects that Beijing will stop violating Japanese waters even if the mutual visits by bilateral leaders get underway. A realistic objective in this affair is considered to be managing the incursions at the current level and preventing them from developing into a military conflict. The "new phase of the Japan-China relationship" that Abe mentioned means the beginning of a complex bilateral interaction where Tokyo and Beijing will try to seek cooperation while managing tensions over the Senkakus or perceptions of wartime history.

Meanwhile, improving the bilateral situation may enable Tokyo to gain China's help over North Korea's nuclear issue and the abduction of Japanese nationals by Pyongyang. As China's position against the United States hardens over trade issues and its stance continues to shift on North Korea, "Japan's role will become important, although we would be mediating" between Beijing and Washington, said a senior Japanese Foreign Ministry official.

So what is China's position? Beijing wants to use the improvement of ties with Japan as a card in its negotiations with the U.S. administration of President Donald Trump as their trade war continues to heat up. According to the Chinese foreign ministry, President Xi Jinping told Prime Minister Abe that China and Japan must protect the free-trade system and promote the construction of an open world economy." He also described the direction of future Japan-China ties as "advancing in stability."

Xi also expressed hope for Japan's greater cooperation over China's "One Belt One Road" international infrastructure development initiative, while he sought a "proper handling" of the issues of historic views and Taiwan, which Beijing regards as a renegade province, while Tokyo maintains friendly ties with the island.

China's apparent move to get closer to Japan is evident in a number of recent meetings between high-ranking Chinese and Japanese leaders. Premier Li Keqiang, the No. 2 figure in China's ruling Communist Party, met in Beijing on Sept. 12 with a top Japanese business delegation headed by Nippon Steel and Sumitomo Metal Corp. Chairman Shoji Muneoka, and emphasized that bilateral ties have been "back on the right track." "We want to go ahead on that track," Li said, promising that China will firmly maintain its free trade, reform and open door policies.

Li met a visiting Japanese delegation for the second time in a row following last year's gathering after years of difficulties for Japanese visitors to see him amid the deteriorating relationship between Tokyo and Beijing over issues such as Japan's nationalization of the Senkaku Islands in 2012. The fact that the No. 1 and No. 2 leaders of China saw Japanese representatives on the same day can be construed as a clear indication that China recognizes the importance of Japan.

In late August, China's Vice Premier Liu He, who is said to be Xi's economic brain, and Han Zheng, another deputy, met with Japanese Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso during Japan-China financial dialogue. Around the same time, Toshihiro Nikai, secretary-general of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party, had a meeting with China's Vice President Wang Qishan. The spate of meetings by senior party and government officials was an effort to smooth the path toward the summit between Abe and Xi.

China is making these moves because of its difficult situation with the United States. Their trade war is only escalating with reciprocal sanctions. President Trump is preparing a new set of sanctions worth 200 billion dollars on top of sanctions on imported Chinese products worth an annual 50 billion dollars. As U.S. sanctions intensify, Chinese exports will certainly slow down, dragging down the economy. "China has a greater need to improve ties with Japan," says a person in Beijing's diplomatic community.

(Japanese original by Yoshitaka Koyama and Yusuke Tanabe, Political News Department; Kiyohiro Akama and Joji Uramatsu, Beijing Bureau)

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