By Yusuke Takeuchi
BEIJING – Liberal Democratic Party Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai, who is currently in China, will attend an international forum on China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative, a project pursued by Chinese President Xi Jinping to build a wide-area economic zone, on April 26. He is set to back private-sector cooperation, as he is accompanied by Japan Business Federation [Keidanren] Chairman Hiroaki Nakanishi and National Federation of Agricultural Cooperative Associations (Zen-Noh) Chairman Yutaka Nagasawa. As the Japanese government has grown concerned about China’s dispute with the U.S. and its hegemonic approach and distances itself from the Belt and Road initiative, Nikai is set to display cooperation as a representative of the LDP.
Besides Nakanishi and Nagasawa, Japan Association of Travel Agents Vice Chairperson Akihiro Horisaka is also accompanying Nikai. Some of his party joined his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping held on April 24.
Keidanren has a strong interest in tapping the Chinese market, which has a population of 1.4 billion. JA Zen-Noh wants to increase the export of Japanese rice to China. The tourism industry expects that over 8 million Chinese visitors will present business opportunities. Nikai hopes to bolster cooperation with China ahead of this summer’s Upper House elections.
On April 27, Nikai and other parliamentarian delegates plan to attend an event that JA Group will organize to promote Japan’s local farm produce. China has been restricting the import of Japanese farm products from the prefectures of the northeastern Tohoku region since the outbreak of the nuclear accident in Fukushima. The event will serve as an opportunity to promote the safety of Japanese food.
China, on its part, is also looking to expand economic cooperation with Japan as it is experiencing trade conflicts with the U.S. President Xi discussed with Nikai a new foreign investment law, which was enacted in March and is aimed at protecting investments by foreign entities, and encouraged Japanese firms to join the Belt and Road initiative. He also pointed out that the preservation of a free trade mechanism is in the interest of both China and Japan and tacitly conveyed that Japan would not join the encirclement policy that the U.S. Trump administration adopts to contain China.
The international conference on the Belt and Road initiative will be joined by the leaders of about 40 countries. Given that Xi must have received many requests for bilateral meetings from these countries, it was unusual for him to meet with Nikai, who was visiting Japan in the capacity of secretary-general of the ruling party. This implies that the Chinese leader wants to emphasize at home and abroad that the Belt and Road conference is joined by a key politician from Japan, a close ally of the U.S.
Xi also wants to appeal to the domestic audiences that Japan-China ties are in stable shape as he is set to make his first visit to Japan to attend the G20 summit in June.
International criticism remains strong that the Belt and Road program is leaving its recipients deeper in debt. The U.S. shelved sending a delegate to the forum this time. According to sources familiar to the Japan-China relationship, China had requested Japan to send a minister, but a state minister of economy, trade and industry will represent the Japanese government at the event. Nikai will attend the event as LDP secretary-general to lead the Japanese business community.
Nikai also pays consideration to the government’s position. In a speech he will deliver at the conference, he will stress the importance of promoting economic cooperation on the assumption that the Belt and Road initiative should ensure the fiscal soundness of recipient countries as well as the transparency of projects. Japan and China agreed in October 2018 to promote economic cooperation in “third markets” without using the term “Belt and Road.” Such terms as fiscal soundness were proposed by Japan.
On April 25, Nikai stopped by Shanghai to meet with Shanghai Municipal Committee of the Communist Party of China Secretary Li Qiang, a close aide of President Xi. He brought LDP Acting Secretary-General Motoo Hayashi and LDP Treasury Bureau Director-General Teru Fukui to the meeting in a bid to broaden connections between Japan and China. The Japan-China relationship occasionally hits snags as the governments of the two countries lock horns with each other over the territorial dispute concerning the Senkakus and other issues. It appears that he is trying to develop within the party human resources who are capable of playing an auxiliary role in the event bilateral ties go sour. (Abridged)