TOKYO — With the Japan-U.S. summit over, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe turns his attention to China with an eye toward regional meetings as an opportunity to improve relations and appeal to Beijing on North Korea.
Short and long term
After U.S. President Donald Trump departed Tuesday for South Korea, Abe brought in officials including Foreign Affairs Vice Minister Shinsuke Sugiyama to set his diplomatic itinerary. The prime minister will attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vietnam on Friday, followed by a meeting of leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and relevant countries in the Philippines. Abe plans to seek out one-on-one talks at these events.
In particular, Abe hopes to speak with Chinese President Xi Jinping. This would mark their first meeting since July, as well as the first after the Chinese leader consolidated power at last month’s Communist Party congress. It would give Abe a chance to gauge Xi’s approach to Japan going into the latter’s second five-year term as party general secretary.
The prime minister’s main focus in the short term is dealing with North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. Chinese cooperation is essential to ensuring the success of sanctions resolutions adopted by the United Nations Security Council. Trump, slated to meet with Xi on Thursday, agreed with Abe at Monday’s summit that Beijing has an important role to play in applying pressure on Pyongyang.
Abe’s long-term goal is a closer economic relationship with China. Japanese companies see opportunity in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, an effort to build a modern-day Silk Road extending through Asia to Europe. Winning related business as part of Abe’s push for investment in high-quality infrastructure could give a boost to an economic policy seen as running out of ammunition. At their summit, Trump and Abe made a point of stressing the importance of continuing constructive dialogue with Beijing.
The prime minister also hopes to work with Xi to arrange visits to each other’s countries. Such trips have become politically problematic because of bilateral issues including the Senkaku Islands, which are administered by Japan but also claimed by China as the Diaoyu.
Abe aims to take advantage of such milestones as the 45th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic relations this year, as well as the 40th anniversary in 2018 of the signing of a treaty of peace and friendship, to resume regular alternating visits and bring stability to the relationship.
These plans assume that a Japan-China-South Korea summit will be held in Japan this year. The theoretically annual meeting has not taken place since 2015 amid diplomatic tensions and political turmoil in Seoul. Tokyo envisions using a visit by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang this year to pave the way for Abe to travel to China in 2018, followed by Xi reciprocating with a trip to Japan. Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono may also go to China this year to lay the groundwork.
Much remains unclear about Beijing’s intentions in Xi’s second term. Meeting here late last month with Kong Xuanyou, a Chinese assistant minister of foreign affairs, Kono inquired about visiting China or holding a three-party summit this year. Though the Chinese diplomat expressed interest in improving bilateral relations, no details were hammered out, according to a Japanese government source with knowledge of the situation. Kong told reporters afterward that the diplomatic agenda remains a blank slate.
“China will probably make a decision after seeing how Trump’s visit to Japan and the APEC summit turn out,” a senior Japanese foreign ministry official said. With an extraordinary session of Japan’s legislature set to run until Dec. 9, a three-way summit would likely not come until mid-December at the earliest.