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Japan, China looking to new stage of relations 40 years on from peace, friendship treaty

TOKYO -- As Japan and China marked the 40th anniversary of their Treaty of Peace and Friendship on Oct. 23, Japanese and Chinese governments' moves to improve bilateral relations have been gathering momentum in spite of lingering territorial tensions.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has talked of aiming for a "new stage of relations" collaborating on world issues such as trade and investment, while shelving historical and other problems. As Tokyo eyes a visit to Japan by Chinese President Xi Jinping in June next year, there are also moves to create a "fifth political document" outlining relations between Japan and China, on top of four existing ones.

After returning from a visit to the Russian city of Vladivostok in mid-September for a meeting of the Eastern Economic Forum, Abe gave feedback on his talks with Xi, who was also at the event, to people close to him. "We were able to have intensive discussions on the North Korean issue," Abe was quoted as saying. "We were able to sufficiently convey Japan's stance of maintaining sanctions (against Pyongyang)."

Relations between Japan and China cooled markedly in 2012 after Japan nationalized the Senkaku Islands, which China claims but Japan controls as part of the southernmost prefecture of Okinawa. However, ties started improving last year as Tokyo sought to cooperate with Beijing to deal with North Korea, which was repeatedly conducting nuclear and missile tests, noting that China has influence over North Korea.

China, in step, is looking to collaborate with Japan in the economic sphere. In June last year, Abe announced that Japan would cooperate with China in the "One Belt One Road" infrastructure investment initiative promoted by China as a modern Silk Road.

An additional factor in bringing Japan and China closer together has been a trade war being waged by U.S. President Donald Trump against China. In late July, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang met with Tadamori Oshima, Speaker of Japan's House of Representatives visiting China, and asked how Japan and the U.S. had managed to maintain a close relationship despite past friction over trade. "With trade friction emerging between the United States and China, China has quickly drawn close to us this year," explained one Japanese government figure.

On one hand, Japan is urging China to abide by international rules. But Tokyo also intends to cooperate with China in urging the international community to maintain free trade.

-- Suggestions of a 'fifth document' despite friction over Senkakus

Friction still remains between Japan and China over the Senkaku Islands. Chinese vessels enter Japan's territorial waters around the islands in the East China Sea two to three times a month. In May this year, the two countries agreed on a maritime and aerial communication mechanism aimed at averting unintended clashes between the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) and the Chinese military, but this was merely designed to avoid a worst-case scenario.

The "new stage of relations" that Abe has talked about is one that aims to promote ties pivoting on economic relations in spite of tensions. With the Senkaku issue in mind, Chinese Ambassador to Japan Cheng Yonghua hit a note similar to Abe's in a speech in Tokyo in September: "There are delicate aspects, but both countries are aligned with many benefits overall."

To maintain the fragile relationship between Japan and China, likened to a glass sculpture, a proposal to create a "fifth political document" between the two countries has emerged within the Japanese government. There have been "four political documents" providing the foundation for relations between Tokyo and Beijing, including the 1972 Japan-China Joint Communique and the 1978 Treaty of Peace and Friendship. The Japanese government idea is to create a fifth document painting a new picture of Sino-Japanese relations which outlines cooperation on global issues.

Masaya Inoue, a professor at Seikei University in Tokyo who is versed in relations between the two countries, commented, "It would be good to have an opportunity for both Japan and China to confirm how they will fulfill their roles in the international order in Asia and the world economy."

There are concerns in the Japanese government, however, that Japan could be made to accept the positioning of being a "peripheral country next to the great nation of China."

Forty years ago, the Treaty of Peace and Friendship put yen loans and other initiatives into full swing. China is now the world's No. 2 economy, and the former relationship has ended -- developments that have prompted a search for a new relationship.

(Japanese original by Shinichi Akiyama and Yoshitaka Koyama, Political News Department)

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