By Tsugumasa Uchihata
Foreign Minister Taro Kono visited China amid a growing atmosphere of improvement in bilateral relations and met with Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Premier Li Keqiang. Mainichi Shimbun and four other newspapers all commended the two sides’ postures and voiced hopes for the future, while Sankei Shimbun took issue with the view that improvement of ties is possible without tackling the pending issues, such as the Senkaku Islands.
Mainichi expressed the view that “a stable bilateral relationship needs to be built on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the conclusion of the Japan-China Treaty of Peace and Friendship. Foreign Minister Taro Kono’s visit to China early this year was the first step.” It added: “Despite the fact that the visit took place on short notice on a Sunday, the Chinese side made utmost efforts to accommodate him. This was probably an indication of its desire to improve ties.”
In his recent policy speech to the Diet, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe explained that he envisioned the following process with regard to the Japan-China relationship: inviting Premier Li for the Japan-China-ROK summit, his visit to China, to be followed by President Xi Jinping’s visit to Japan. Kono’s China trip was part of efforts to lay the groundwork. Exchange of visits between Abe and Xi has been set as the near-term goal in the process of improving ties.
Asahi’s editorial pointed out: “There are many pending issues. Needless to say, precisely for this reason, it is important for the political leaders of both countries to meet frequently and communicate directly.”
Tokyo Shimbun wrote: “In order to achieve a genuine improvement in ties, political leaders of both countries need to meet and engage in candid discussions.”
Yomiuri echoed this opinion, stating: “Building a relationship of trust between the leaders is indispensable for political and economic cooperation between the two countries.”
All papers argued for the importance of exchanges between leaders.
Nikkei talked about the broader significance of such exchanges. It said: “A framework for reciprocal visits and exchange of views by the leaders of the two neighboring countries that are the second and third economic powers in the world is important. This will bring great benefits to both peoples. North Korea’s nuclear arms and missiles present an urgent security issue. Communicating with China, which holds the key to this issue, is becoming increasingly important.”
While Sankei did not dispute the usefulness of reciprocal visits by the leaders, it asked: “Is Japan not working too hard in its recent policy toward China to create a conciliatory mood in order to realize the visits?” It further stated: “We are skeptical of the government’s explanation that the bilateral relationship is moving toward improvement even though pending issues remain unresolved. We hope the government will realize that having pro forma exchange of visits by the leaders alone will not lead to genuine friendship.”
There are indeed numerous pending issues between the two countries, including the Senkakus, history issues, the detention of Japanese nationals, and the South China Sea.
Mainichi pointed out “the need to work promptly on these issues that may result in tension amid the positive trend.”
Even the editorials that were positive about the Kono visit touched on the pending issues between the two countries, reflecting the difficulty of managing relations with China.
Asahi, which acknowledged that the bilateral relationship has “ups and downs,” called for “gradual broadening of the scope of cooperation while avoiding decisive conflict even if their interests clash.” It asked the political leaders on both sides to make efforts in this regard.
Nikkei noted that “confidence building between the two countries will not be easy because there are many obstacles,” but pointed out that, “Now is the time to remove the obstacles one by one and make persistent efforts to lay the groundwork.” (Slightly abridged)