BEIJING/TOKYO -- In his first official visit to China as Japan's leader in seven years, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to demonstrate that Japan is improving its relationship with its massive neighbor to its west.
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Doing so, however, required that the lingering issue of sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture, known as the Diaoyu Islands in China, effectively be shelved, so that the two countries can progress toward "a new stage" of bilateral ties.
On the morning of Oct. 26, the Chinese flag and the Japanese flag were hoisted side by side in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. A 19-gun salute was fired to welcome Prime Minister Abe, and the national anthems of both countries reverberated throughout the square. Standing in front of the Great Hall of the People facing Tiananmen Square, Abe and Li reviewed an honor guard. By holding a welcome ceremony based on diplomatic protocol for a Japanese prime minister for the first time in seven years, China was sending a message both domestically and internationally that Japan-China relations were back on track.
At the outset of his eighth meeting ever with Abe, President Xi shook hands in front of the two countries' flags with a satisfied expression on his face. Abe told him, "I may be getting ahead of myself, but I'd like to invite you to the opening ceremony of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics." Xi promised Abe that he would cooperate to make the G-20 Summit that is set to take place in Osaka in June of next year a success.
According to a source who accompanied Prime Minister Abe, Xi, who is hosting the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, and Abe, spoke excitedly about their memories of the 1972 Sapporo Winter Olympics over a meal. The mood was the polar opposite of that in a meeting held between the two in Beijing in November 2014, when Xi smiled not once and neither the Chinese nor the Japanese flag were raised.
The turning point came in June 2017, when Prime Minister Abe expressed his intention to offer conditional support to China's "One Belt One Road" economic development strategy. While many in the Abe administration called for caution, Abe placated them by promising that unless Beijing met Tokyo's conditions, he would not offer any money. But he also said that it was a type of offering to Beijing, a step toward collaboration.
While China hopes to get Japan on its side in its trade war with the U.S., Abe's enthusiasm for diplomatic "accomplishments" with China is closely linked to his hopes that they will be reflected in his approval ratings ahead of the House of Councillors election next summer. According to a source involved with the Japanese government, "Compared to the issue of the Northern Territories or the abduction of Japanese nationals by North Korean agents, Japan-China relations yield results rather easily."
Japan also wants China's assistance in dealing with North Korea. Abe expressed Japan's position on the abduction issue, to which Xi said, "I understand and support it." The two countries do not completely agree on sanctions against North Korea, but one senior Japanese Foreign Ministry official said, "Japan and China fall in line with each other when it comes to the goal of denuclearization. It's just that they have differing views on how to get there."
Still, conflicts over the Senkaku Islands and gas field development in the East China Sea as well as historical perceptions remain. "Without stability in the East China Sea, there is no true improvement in bilateral relations," Abe pointed out in his meetings in Beijing, and sought that remedial action be taken regarding Chinese government vessels invading waters surrounding the Senkaku Islands. Abe also told Premier Li that he was "watching China's human rights situation closely," with the oppression of minorities in Xinjiang Province in mind.
With various issues shelved or otherwise still unresolved, the prospects of whether the two countries' relationship will get on track toward a new historic direction are unclear. To those close to him, Prime Minister Abe has said that he will approach China to a certain degree, but never get too close. There are some within the Japanese government who argue that like the four basic documents, including the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between Japan and the People's Republic of China, which have comprised the foundations of bilateral relations, a fifth document should be drawn up to stipulate the conditions of the new relationship.
(Japanese original by Yoshitaka Koyama and Shinichi Akiyama, Political News Department)