A chance to further boost mutual trust

China Plus Published: 2018-05-11 22:34:50
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By Su Yi

Premier Li Keqiang's trip to Japan could be historic to bilateral relations between China and Japan. The first visit by a Chinese premier in eight years comes at a time when both sides have been sending out clearer messages to show strong political will to come closer, both politically and economically. In a recent telephone conversation between President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, both sides said they were willing to take the opportunity of the 40th anniversary of a landmark peace and friendship treaty to further this pair of bilateral ties.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang addresses a reception marking the 40th anniversary of the signing of China-Japan Treaty of Peace and Friendship in Tokyo, Japan, on May 10, 2018.[Photo: Xinhua]

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang addresses a reception marking the 40th anniversary of the signing of China-Japan Treaty of Peace and Friendship in Tokyo, Japan, on May 10, 2018.[Photo: Xinhua]

This momentum of warming up did not come easily. As Chinese Ambassador to Japan Cheng Yonghua put it, the twists and turns in the opening years of this decade, specifically those surrounding territorial and historical issues, seriously damaged the political mutual trust and practical interests of the two countries. The two countries ended up reaching a four-point principled agreement in late 2014 on the handling of those issues. Further improvement came as President Xi Jinping met with Toshihiro Nikai, Secretary-General of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, who led the Japanese delegation to the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing a year ago.

It is hard-won momentum with convincing inner logic. After senior LDP officials attended the forum, the Japanese side repeatedly expressed interest in "Belt and Road" projects. Now it is being reported the two countries are planning to set up a dialogue mechanism, involving both government officials and the private sector to enhance cooperation in third-party markets along the "Belt and Road" routes. It is believed such an approach bears meaningful potential, since China and Japan are highly complementary on the global value chain.

Similar to those under the "Belt and Road Initiative," opportunities brought about by economic ties with China are hard to ignore, even by the political forces in Japan that are less enthusiastic toward a warmer relationship with China. Bilateral trade jumped to some 300 billion U.S. dollars in 2017, posing a 10 percent strong annual growth. While at the same time, 7.3 million Chinese people traveled to Japan last year, 15 percent more than the previous year.

For Japan, to beef up economic cooperation with China is becoming more of an apparent choice against the backdrop of an increasingly protectionist and unilateral approach by Washington. It is expected that during Premier Li's visit, China and Japan will sign a slew of deals on healthcare, medical science and social security. That is in addition to reintroducing bilateral currency swaps, which was suspended in 2013 when relations deteriorated over territorial disputes.

This is also the background story of the upcoming trilateral summit between leaders of China, South Korea and Japan, the first such meeting since 2015. At a time of rising trade protectionism, it could be a fine opportunity for the three countries to voice support for free trade. The meeting is also expected to accelerate the negotiations for China-Japan-South Korea Free Trade Agreement and Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which could help to pave the way for an FTA in the Asia-Pacific region eventually.

Although prioritizing economic agenda before political ties is being encouraged by both sides to further relations, now is the right time to better identify each other's strategic intentions in order to enhance mutual trust. President Xi Jinping reaffirmed China's commitment to opening-up at this year's Boao Forum for Asia. Premier Li said in a signed article in Japanese media ahead of the visit that China was committed to building peaceful and stable ties with Japan. Also on the strategic front, the two countries are accelerating preparations to launch a maritime and aerial communication mechanism, designed to try to avoid unexpected incidents surrounding territorial differences in the East China Sea. Moreover, on regional issues, in their telephone conversation, Prime Minister Abe told President Xi that Japan highly valued China's important role in solving the Korean Peninsula issue and hoped to enhance communication with China.

Of course, it is unrealistic to expect a single summit will put relations fully back on track. Although they do have a favorable situation in front of them regarding domestic politics, global economy and regional geopolitics, historical and territorial issues are still out there and require sincerity, wisdom and strategic thinking to solve. But as long as Japan can face history squarely and the two countries are able to maintain the current momentum of direct and candid communication, we have reason to be optimistic toward the future of China-Japan relations.

(Su Yi is a CRI English host and reporter)

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