Japanese Vice Foreign Minister Akitaka Saiki was visiting China yesterday and today for talks with senior officials, the latest in a series of efforts by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to improve relations soured by a bitter territorial row.
Abe, who cemented his grip on power in an upper-house election last week, has since then been signaling a desire for dialogue — even though Japan has raised its assessment of the risk of China’s military buildup and maritime assertiveness.
On Friday, Abe called for an unconditional meeting between Japanese and Chinese leaders — a proposal he repeated yesterday, according to Kyodo news agency, which said that Abe had instructed diplomats to work toward that goal.
On Sunday, Isao Iijima, an adviser to Abe, told reporters that the prime minister could soon hold a summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平), but Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said no schedule had been set.
“As Prime Minister Abe has repeatedly said, he wants a mutually beneficial, strategic relationship and the door is always open for dialogue,” Suga said.
“However, there is no immediate schedule for a leadership summit,” he told a news conference yesterday.
Often fragile Sino-Japanese ties have been seriously strained since September last year, when a territorial row over tiny islands in the East China Sea flared following Japan’s nationalization of the uninhabited isles.
Concern that Abe, who came to power in December, wants to recast Japan’s wartime history with a less apologetic tone has added to the tension.
“Vice Minister Saiki will visit China on July 29 to 30 and exchange views with Chinese officials,” a Japanese foreign ministry spokesman said.
He did not give further details.
China’s foreign ministry responded to Abe’s overture on Friday by saying its door was always open for talks, but that the problem lay in Japan’s attitude.
Japan should “stop using empty slogans about so-called dialogue to gloss over disagreements,” the ministry said in a statement faxed to Reuters.
Abe, 58, may be hoping to repeat one of the few successes of his troubled 2006 to 2007 term in office, when he thawed ties with China that had frayed during the five-year stint of his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi.
One opportunity for the Japanese leader to meet his Chinese counterpart could be a Sept. 5 to 6 G20 leaders’ summit in St Petersburg, Russia.
“It’s not a breakthrough yet, but we are hopefully making some progress,” said Kunihiko Miyake, a former diplomat close to Abe who is now research director at the Canon Institute for Global Studies in Tokyo. “It is not unilateral solicitation [by Japan]. It is a mutual sort of approach without losing face. That’s why it takes time.”