Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is on a tour of Southeast Asian countries, has held talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang. They agreed to swiftly improve bilateral relations, and Xi expressed enthusiasm about resuming exchanges of visits by the leaders of the two countries.
It is significant that the leaders of the two countries have agreed on the need to improve bilateral ties as next year marks the 40th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between Japan and China.
At the outset of the Abe-Xi talks, the two leaders enlivened the mood of friendship, with Xi smiling as he shook hands with Abe.
At the end of the meeting, the Chinese president highly appreciated the outcome of the discussions, describing the talks as a new starting point for Japan-China relations. Following the meeting, Prime Minister Abe told reporters that he wants to bring bilateral ties to a new phase.
The meeting represented a drastic change from past bilateral summit talks marked by a hostile mood. This is largely because both Abe and Xi have bolstered their respective power bases. They have apparently laid the groundwork for strategically working on challenges their respective countries face with an eye to staying in power over a long period.
A serious challenge Japan faces is the North Korean issue. To lessen the threat posed by Pyongyang's nuclear and missile programs, Japan needs to secure cooperation from China, which has influence on the secluded state.
Abe had criticized China for its attempt to turn the South China Sea into its military stronghold. However, the prime minister has recently toned down his criticism of China as Beijing is exercising restraint on these moves.
Prime Minister Abe reportedly stopped short of making direct mention of the South China Sea issue while underscoring the importance of "maritime order based on the rule of law."
Japan's understanding will be of great help to President Xi in promoting the "One Belt One Road Initiative," an economic zone plan encompassing dozens of countries. During the summit, Xi asked Abe for swift cooperation on the project.
Japan is promoting the "Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy" with China's rise in mind, but Abe and Xi apparently did not exchange views on the matter in their meeting.
Japan and China prioritize different issues and there exist subtle differences in views on the North Korean issue and the One Belt One Road Initiative between the two countries. Prime Minister Abe warned Xi that "bilateral relations cannot be truly improved without stability in the East China Sea" regarding the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture, which are also claimed by China. Xi responded that a key to improving bilateral ties lies in mutual trust.
Both countries always need to keep in mind these issues, but none of the problems will be solved if the two nations stick to their respective positions on these matters.
The Japanese and Chinese leaders have also agreed to hold a summit meeting in Japan between themselves and the South Korean president at an early date. The two countries should take advantage of all positive signs to make tangible improvements in bilateral relations.