• Abe met Li for first time in eight months amid maritime strain
  • Abe underscored importance of rule of law, ministry says

Japan remains eager to host Chinese Premier Li Keqiang before the year is out, even as territorial tensions flare in the East China Sea with a pick up in military ships and planes traversing the area.

QuickTake Territorial Disputes

Top government spokesman Yoshihide Suga said Japan is working toward a summit with Li and South Korean President Park Geun Hye. The system of a rotating yearly meeting involving the three countries stalled in 2012 amid recriminations with Japan over wartime history.

"I have absolutely no worries on that score," the chief cabinet secretary said in an interview in Tokyo on Saturday. "Of course it will happen by the year-end, because we’ve made a commitment."

Japan’s efforts were given a boost with last week’s talks between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Li on the sidelines of a summit in Mongolia of leaders from Asia and Europe. It was their first meeting in eight months. While the two aired differences over the disputed South China Sea -- Japan is not a claimant but has supported Southeast Asian nations like Vietnam and the Philippines against China -- the fact the conversation happened at all signals progress.

Testing Ties

Since Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping came to power, ties between two of Asia’s biggest economies have veered between moderately cordial to frigid, mostly over disputes related to Japan’s wartime past and tensions over the uninhabited islands in the East China Sea which both countries claim. A failure to put things on a more stable footing could damage Japan’s biggest trading relationship and leave it exposed to the risk of an unintended military clash.

Abe agreed with Li and Park at a summit in Seoul in November that Japan would host a trilateral summit this year, resurrecting the annual event. But tensions then escalated, raising doubts on whether it would go ahead.

For an explainer on Abe’s efforts to revitalize the military, click here

Abe had a "frank exchange of views" with Li over the South China Sea on Friday in Ulaanbaatar, Japan’s Foreign Ministry said on its website. Abe underscored the importance of settling disputes peacefully and under the rule of law after a tribunal at The Hague dismissed China’s bid for exclusive control over a large part of the waterway. Li told Abe that Japan should not interfere in the issue, the official Xinhua News Agency said.

China has the biggest navy in the region.
China has the biggest navy in the region.

It was a matter of course that Abe and Li would have points of disagreement, Suga said. Still, “they were able to talk about the economy,” he said. “They were able to agree to work together as major economies, according to the reports I have received."

While China’s main focus may be on its loss of face in The Hague, sparring over the East China Sea has intensified, with China alleging two Japanese fighter aircraft "provoked" its jets in June as they patrolled China’s self-declared air defense identification zone in the area -- an allegation Japan denied.

Also in June, a Chinese warship was spotted in the contiguous zone just outside Japanese-administered waters around the disputed islands. While Chinese coastguard ships frequently sail into what Japan sees as its territorial waters, no military vessel had previously been seen there.

The number of Japanese fighter aircraft scrambled to head off approaching Chinese planes reached a record in the April-June quarter, while a maritime and aerial communications mechanism intended to avert unintended clashes has yet to be put into effect.

"The Chinese government has been showing somewhat provocative assertiveness in its maritime activities in the East China Sea in addition to its unilateral military construction in the South China Sea," said Yuichi Hosoya, a political science professor at Keio University in Tokyo. China’s activities may be aimed at convincing a domestic audience of the legitimacy of the Communist Party government, he added.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE