Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Beijing on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the Treaty on Peace and Friendship between Japan and China, and met with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang, respectively. The visit is the first official one in seven years by a Japanese prime minister.
Abe told Xi that he wants to "move up the Japan-China relationship toward a new era, transitioning from competition to cooperation." Xi said that bilateral ties "have been put back on the right track and positive moves are gaining momentum."
The summit meetings came after a prolonged confrontation between Tokyo and Beijing following the nationalization by Japan of Okinawa Prefecture's Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, which China also claims.
The two countries signed a memorandum of understanding that will promote corporate cooperation aimed at some 50 infrastructure investment initiatives in third countries.
We would like to recognize this agreement as a positive, realistic development to strengthen bilateral ties leveraging economic cooperation amid intense political confrontations.
--- Realistic economic cooperation emphasized
However, we have to wonder about how sincere the handshakes between the leaders actually were even though they appeared pretty firm. We suspect that both parties were still testing the waters.
Premier Li raised historic issues between Japan and China and emphasized the need to respect China's position on the issue of Taiwan, which Beijing regards as a renegade province that needs to be reintegrated. Abe, meanwhile, is said to have delayed the start of his visit from the original schedule of Oct. 23, to attend a ceremony marking the 150th anniversary of the Meiji Restoration, which triggered Japan's modernization that included wars against China.
During the meeting, Prime Minister Abe referred to the issue of the East China Sea, where Japan and China continue to have a tense relationship. Following his return to Japan, Abe will receive Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and then visit Australia in November. These moves, indicating closer cooperation among Japan, India and Australia, will surely pique China's ire.
Nevertheless, Tokyo and Beijing can use their wisdom to promote economic cooperation beneficial to both parties and manage historical and national security tensions.
The bilateral relationship has transformed as indicated by the discontinuation of Japan's official development assistance to China. We are in an era in which China and Japan can join forces on an equal footing to advance economic cooperation across the globe.
The first official visit to China in seven years by a Japanese prime minister was materialized because of calculations by Tokyo and Beijing in response to changing international situations.
For its part, China has grown based on its own model of development. Under the rule of the Chinese Communist Party, the country has risen economically and militarily, becoming the second-largest economic power in the world.
In response, the United States tried to bring more freedom and moderation to China by encouraging the country to respect international rules. Beijing, however, stepped up government control on society and restricted political freedom.
Because of this failure, Washington has come to deem China as a "revisionist country" that tries to change the status quo by force. This perception is reflected in the current trade war waged by the U.S. against China.
This growing tension between the two countries is certainly behind China's substantial easing of its attitude toward Japan. The Chinese economy is slowing down now because of the trade friction.
Beijing is also worried about the cancellation and downsizing of a number of projects, mainly in Southeast Asia, that are promoted by its "One Belt, One Road" international infrastructure initiative.
Meanwhile, Japan apparently wants to guide China toward respecting prevailing norms in the world through economic cooperation, by utilizing its rich experience in persuading the international community to listen to its voices without too much reliance on wielding power as a major country.
--- China should prove its stance of not seeking hegemony
Japan and China also agreed on a framework for dialogue on issues including the protection of intellectual property rights. This discussion may lead to the creation of a new investment model by Japan and China and ease trade tensions between Washington and Beijing.
These developments have come out from a new room of diplomatic maneuvering emerging for Japan that has traditionally depended almost solely on Washington in crafting its international policies, following the inauguration of the U.S. administration of President Donald Trump, who is promoting "America First" policies. Cooperating with China will beef up Japan's presence in the international community.
However, Japan and China will have to continue to control their confrontational ties on national security over the long term.
The two countries have finally agreed on the early introduction of a hotline to avoid accidental clashes in the East China Sea. It is an important step forward for crisis management, but tensions still remain between Japan and China.
One issue of contention is hegemony. The problem was a focal point in the bilateral negotiations for the peace and friendship treaty, and the two sides agreed in the pact not to seek hegemony in Asia-Pacific and other parts of the world. Japan and China have since confirmed this provision to indicate that they are not posing threats to each other.
But China is promoting the militarization of islands in the South China Sea, destabilizing the surrounding region. Such actions cannot help but be seen as hegemonic.
Just saying they are not seeking hegemony will not solve the problem. We must resume talks over the joint development of gas fields in the East China Sea. The forum will serve as a safety valve to stop confrontations from becoming intense.
Tokyo and Beijing have come to enjoy closer terms due in part to the North Korean problem. The two sides share the view that dialogue with Pyongyang is important, and North Korea must completely denuclearize. China is supporting direct dialogue between Japan and North Korea.
Tokyo and Beijing have come into a position to envision long-term bilateral ties as President Xi aims to establish lasting rule while Prime Minister Abe has been elected to his third three-year term as president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Now is the time to have a sincere handshake and advance the bilateral relationship between Japan and China.