Japan’s national security adviser met China’s top foreign policy official for talks they called a step toward improving ties strained by a territorial dispute and suspicions about Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s efforts to shake off his country’s pacifist constraints.
The meeting between State Councilor Yang Jiechi and National Security Adviser Shotaro Yachi took place Thursday in Beijing, hours after Japan’s lower house of parliament approved bills to expand the role of the country’s military. Yang, China’s top diplomat, suggested the exchange could pave the way for similar talks in the future.
“This is a major move to enhance strategic communications of the two countries,” Yang told reporters. He said the countries decided to hold “high-level political dialogues” over questions that would have a “deep and comprehensive influence” on the relationship.
Yachi was also scheduled to meet Chinese Premier Li Keqiang -- the nation’s second-highest official -- on Friday, Kyodyo News reported.
The meetings add to evidence that China wants a thaw with its second-largest trading partner, following two meetings between Abe and President Xi Jinping since November. Ties deteriorated in 2012 when Japan’s purchase of three disputed East China Sea islands prompted riots in China targeting Japanese businesses. Abe compounded tensions by visiting a Tokyo shrine that honors some Class-A war criminals.
In late 2013, China announced an air defense zone over the disputed islands and started a campaign to criticize Abe’s plan to expand the reach of his military. Legislation that passed Thursday would codify Abe’s reinterpretation of the pacifist constitution and let its troops aid other nations under attack.
The strength of the improvement in China-Japan relations will be tested in August when Abe is expected to make a statement to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. China has repeatedly urged Japan to “learn” from history. Abe has said he stands by, but won’t repeat, past apologies.
“Abe needs to cater to some sort of face-saving solution that grants Xi Jinping the chance to de-escalate without looking like backing down,” said Giulio Pugliese, an assistant professor at the University of Heidelberg’s Institute of Chinese Studies. “More surprises might be in the pipeline.”
Abe is considering a visit to China in September, the Asahi newspaper reported last week. The wording of Abe’s statement would probably be a precondition to any visit, said Zhu Jianrong, a professor at Toyo Gakuen University in Tokyo.
“An acceptable statement doesn’t mean including everything China wants,” Zhu said. “It’s not a question of 100 percent, but perhaps 60 or 70 percent.”
One unknown is how much the passage of the security bills will complicate Abe’s push for improved ties with China. Yang expressed concern about the bills, while China’s Defense Ministry said they “would have complex effects on the regional security environment,” according to a statement published by the state-run Global Times.
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Passage of the bills “could provide more ammunition to nationalism in both China and Japan, which could hurt the still fragile bilateral ties,” said Wang Xinsheng, a professor of history who specializes in Japan and East Asian politics at Peking University. “The new bills could also refresh neighbors’ memories of Japan’s wartime aggression and spark an arms race in the region.”
Abe has been courting Xi for months, even as he offered security support elsewhere in a region concerned about China’s military rise. Despite the meetings between Xi and Abe, China has so far refused a formal summit.
Warmer relations could provide space for more trade and investment. Trade between China and Japan slumped 6 percent to $343 billion in 2013 and stagnated last year.
A thaw could also reduce friction between China and the U.S., which is obliged to defend Japan in the event of a conflict. Greater communications could better coordinate a regional response to North Korea’s nuclear program.
“The bilateral relationship is improving,” Yachi said. “I highly praise this.”
— With assistance by David Tweed, Haixing Jin, and Ting Shi