Elder Japan Statesman Begins Beijing Trip in Sign of Better Ties

An elder Japanese statesman has begun a series of meetings with senior officials in Beijing in a sign of improving ties between the two neighbors.

(Bloomberg) — An elder Japanese statesman has begun a series of meetings with senior officials in Beijing in a sign of improving ties between the two neighbors. 

Yohei Kono, a former foreign minister, chief cabinet secretary and speaker of the House of Representatives, arrived in Beijing on Monday as the head of a business and trade delegation of around 80 people, including Okinawan Governor Denny Tamaki. On Tuesday the group met with Commerce Minister Wang Wentao, who said the two nations should jointly ensure a stable supply chain.

The visit comes as political tensions between the two nations are simmering, with Beijing unhappy with Tokyo over the recent Group of Seven statement in Japan, Japanese export restrictions on high-tech goods, the planned release of treated water from the Fukushima nuclear disaster site into the Pacific Ocean, and other issues. 

Beijing is also concerned over increasingly tight defense and diplomatic ties between Japan, the US, South Korea and other allies, which it sees as being aimed at encircling China.

In turn, Tokyo is unhappy about the continuous intrusion of Chinese coast guard ships into waters claimed by both sides but controlled by Japan, the recent arrest of a Japanese pharmaceutical executive, and China’s increasingly aggressive military actions around Taiwan.

Despite those tensions, there are also signs that China wants to improve ties with Japan — including the fact that this visit is even happening. In addition, China’s top diplomat Wang Yi on Monday attended an event about ties with Japan and South Korea, calling on them to show solidarity among East Asian nations. 

Wang’s attendance indicates there is a higher likelihood that the three nations will be able to hold a summit this year. The leaders of the three countries met annually until 2019, but that was suspended during the pandemic. The recent worsening in China’s relations with both Japan and South Korea had made the chances of a gathering resuming in 2023 less likely. 

In a sign of the increasing complexity of regional ties as tensions rise, this week there are also meetings happening between Japanese parliamentarians and officials from Taiwan. 

On Monday, opposition lawmakers including former foreign minister Seiji Maehara met President Tsai Ing-wen in Taipei, according to local media. On Tuesday, the head of Taiwan’s legislature went to Japan’s Yonaguni Island and met with a separate Japanese lawmaker, according to Japanese media.

While China hasn’t so far complained about these meetings, it opposes the officials of other nations meeting with Taiwanese officials. Beijing sees this as legitimizing the government of the self-governing island — which China claims as its own.

Business Delegation

There are about 80 people in the Japanese delegation in China, including company representatives and Okinawa’s Tamaki, according to a report from Kyodo News. Members of the group may also meet with other senior leaders in Beijing. 

Since leaving politics, Kono — in his capacity as head of a society aimed at promoting bilateral trade — has visited China repeatedly and has served as a unofficial link between the Japanese and Chinese governments. Prior to the pandemic, he met regularly with top officials — including former Premier Li Keqiang. This trip is the first since China reopened its borders and may pave the way for further discussions. 

The outreach to the Japanese business community mirrors similar gestures by Premier Li Qiang and other senior officials, who have been appealing to foreign businesses to invest more in China in recent months. On Li’s recent visit to Germany, he acknowledged the legitimacy of de-risking while speaking to CEOs, but said it should be decided by business leaders instead of governments.

Supply Chains

China’s President Xi Jinping told a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization on Tuesday that his country is against decoupling and severing of supply chains, Xinhua News Agency reported.

As the country reopens after the Covid Zero policy, which effectively shut its border for almost three years, China has been trying to attract foreign businesses back to increase investment — especially in the high-tech sector. 

However, the weaker-than-expected economic recovery, various crackdowns on companies, unclear regulations and other factors are all making many foreign firms more reticent to invest.

Despite the calls for stability from Wang, Xi and others in China to stabilize supply chains, Beijing announced Monday it would start licensing exporters of two metals used in manufacturing of high-tech goods. That move could lead to export restrictions and controls in the future. Japan is a large importer of these goods, and the government in Tokyo said it was monitoring the situation.

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