Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang met in Manila on Monday, sharing their desire to further improve bilateral relations, which they noted are getting better.
Their meeting came on the heels of talks between Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Vietnam on Saturday, where the leaders agreed to make a “new start” in bilateral ties that have often been strained by territorial and historical grievances.
“While of course, we cannot deny the existence of some sensitive factors…I think both sides must work hard together to make the momentum of improvement in China-Japan relations into something solid,” Li told Abe at the outset of the talks, open to the press.
“I want us to strongly move forward the development of a strategic, mutually beneficial relationship,” Abe replied, saying he too had noticed a trend of improvement.
Abe’s unprecedented meeting with both Xi and Li in such a short period of time is a sign of improving relations.
In their third sit-down talks since Li became premier in 2013, he and Abe agreed that Japan and China have a great responsibility for ensuring regional and global peace and prosperity, and should continue to work on a “mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests,” a Japanese government spokesman said.
While differences remain in the two countries’ positions on North Korea and territorial disputes in the South China Sea, Abe and Li found some common ground on both issues.
On North Korea, the leaders affirmed that denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is their shared goal and agreed to work in closer coordination for regional peace and prosperity, including through the full enforcement of U.N. sanctions resolutions.
Abe appealed to Li for China — North Korea’s primary diplomatic and economic backer — to play a “more constructive” role, the spokesman said.
Li explained the agreement between China and the ASEAN nations, some of which have overlapping territorial claims with Beijing in the South China Sea, to start negotiations toward a code of conduct on ways to defuse tensions in the strategically important waters.
Abe told Li he welcomes the start of those talks and other progress between China and ASEAN, while reiterating that a free and open maritime order based on the rule of law is important in every part of the world.
According to the spokesman, Abe and Li agreed to make arrangements to hold a trilateral summit with South Korean President Moon Jae In “soon,” without mentioning a specific timeline.
The summit, which Tokyo has said it wants to hold by the end of the year, would bring Li to Japan for the first time since he became premier.
They agreed to advance bilateral economic cooperation, as well as discuss ways in which both countries are contributing to regional peace and prosperity, including China’s “One Belt, One Road” cross-border infrastructure megaproject, the spokesman said.
Both sides now have a solid political foundation on which to make commitments to improving ties.
Abe’s ruling coalition achieved a solid victory in last month’s general election, while Xi and Li were re-elected to their positions in China’s Communist Party following its twice-a-decade congress.
This year is the 45th anniversary of the normalization of ties between Japan and China, while next year will mark 40 years since the signing of a bilateral peace and friendship treaty.
While both sides have welcomed an improvement in bilateral ties, Japan must reconcile the benefits of the thaw with lingering concern about China’s rising influence coming to dominate the region.
The countries remain at odds over the Japan-controlled, China-claimed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, which are also claimed by Taiwan.
The Abe administration’s push for “high quality” infrastructure investment, particularly in Southeast Asia, hints similarly at trying to present Japan as a balancing agent against China’s influence.
Abe and Li will meet again on Tuesday with South Korea’s Moon and the 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations members for the ASEAN-plus-three summit.