Japan’s incoming prime minister yesterday pledged to seek a thaw in ties with China after a report said he would send a special envoy on a fence-mending mission to Beijing.
Ties between Japan and China have become increasingly strained over a disputed island chain also claimed by Taiwan — the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台列嶼), controlled by Tokyo, which calls them the Senkakus, and which Beijing calls the Diaoyu Islands (釣魚群島) — with neither side willing to budge after months of bitter wrangling.
“I want to make efforts to return to the starting point of developing the mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests,” Japanese prime minister-elect Shinzo Abe told reporters.
“The Japan-China relationship is one of extremely important bilateral ties,” he said.
The comments came after the business daily Nikkei reported Abe would send Masahiko Komura, the vice president of his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), to deliver a letter to Chinese authorities next month.
They also came a day after China sent ships into territorial waters around the disputed islands, in the first incursion since Japan elected a new government.
“I will shoulder grave responsibility [for Japan’s future],” Abe, who will officially be appointed as prime minister on Wednesday, told supporters in his constituency in western Japan yesterday. “My mission is to bring a breakthrough in the serious situations we face in economy, diplomacy, and education.”
Abe said on Friday he would dispatch former Japanese finance minister Fukushiro Nukaga to deliver a letter to South Korean president-elect Park Geun-hye, who also triumphed in national elections just days ago.
Tokyo is embroiled in a separate row with Seoul over a different set of islets, with tensions flaring up earlier this year after outgoing South Korean President Lee Myung-bak paid a sudden visit to the disputed territory.
“Abe intends to improve frayed ties with South Korea and with China by sending special envoys,” the Nikkei said, without citing sources.
Abe’s sweeping parliamentary victory on Sunday was greeted with caution in Beijing and Seoul, with China saying it was “highly concerned” over Japan’s future direction under the new government.
In one of his first broadcast interviews after the parliamentary win, Abe said there was no room for compromise on the sovereignty of the disputed islands, calling them “Japan’s inherent territory,” and putting the onus for improved relations on Beijing.
Despite warm words about the importance of economic ties with Beijing — China is Japan’s biggest trading partner — Abe stressed the need to build relations with other countries, such as India and Australia.
Analysts have said at least some of this could be posturing, with some believing Abe’s LDP will have easier communication with China due to the contacts it developed during its more than half a century rule before it was ousted in 2009.
Abe said yesterday there was “no change in our plans to study” stationing officials on the disputed islands — a controversial policy option that would further provoke Beijing.