China and Japan have agreed to resume coronavirus-hit business travel by the end of next month and to push ahead with multilateral trade deals to strengthen ties ahead of the future Biden administration.
The announcement came as China’s foreign minister Wang Yi concluded a visit to Japan on Wednesday, the first high-level delegation from Beijing since Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga took office in September.
Prior to the pandemic, Chinese President Xi Jinping was expected to make a state visit to Japan this year to cement a withdrawal from bilateral ties in 2018 as Beijing scrambled to break regional ties amid a violent spat with the United States about trade, technology and security.
During the two-day visit, Mr. Wang held meetings with top Japanese leaders, including Mr. Suga, Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, and Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato.
The Japanese ministers all raised concerns about the raids by Chinese ships on the controversial islands of Senkaku or Diaoyu, which both countries claim, yet signaled that Tokyo is keen to improve its relations with Beijing.
According to a statement from the Japanese government, Mr. Suga said to Mr. Yang that he was pleased with the resumption of business travel and wanted a “stable bilateral relationship,” but he raised the Senkaku issue, China’s ban on Japanese beef and crackdown on security Hong Kong to Kong.
But Japan’s new prime minister is likely to want a strong economic relationship with China to help his country recover from the Covid-19 shock, and as a result, he could try to downplay the more controversial security ties.
Earlier this month, US President-elect Joe Biden said Washington’s security guarantees had been extended to the disputed islands, a sign that he would be ready to question China’s territorial claims in the region.
Zhou Yongsheng, a researcher at the Institute for International Relations in China, said Mr. Suga’s government is wise to downplay the territorial dispute in order to advance broader bilateral relations. “This is an unsolvable problem and [raising it] will only exacerbate the conflict, ”he said.
He added that it “shows that Japan wants to protect its own interests independently of the US” and presented an opportunity to advance regional trade deals.
Mr. Yang and his Japanese counterpart, Mr. Motegi, also pledged to make rapid progress on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Trade Pact, one of the largest free trade agreements in history, signed by 15 Asia-Pacific countries earlier this month.
Mr Xi this week expressed an interest in joining the comprehensive and progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, a move that China may have more leverage on regional trade under a previously US-backed deal that was abandoned by the US would lend. Japan is already a member.
Additional reporting from Emma Zhou in Beijing
Coronavirus Business Update
How is the coronavirus affecting markets, companies, and our daily lives and workplaces? Find out more about our coronavirus newsletter.