Beijing (AFP) – Japan and China signed $2.6 billion in business deals and touted their warmer ties on Friday during a rare visit to Beijing by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as both face trade challenges from US President Donald Trump.
Abe met Chinese President Xi Jinping after a full day of activities that included talks with Premier Li Keqiang and an honour guard with Japan’s flag raised outside the Great Hall of the People across from Tiananmen Square.
Relations between Asia’s two biggest economies have improved in recent years after they sunk to new lows in 2012 when Tokyo “nationalised” disputed islands claimed by Beijing.
The last official visit to Beijing by a Japanese prime minister was in 2011.
But as Trump’s tariffs bite, China has increasingly looked to Japan to serve as a hedge against growing US protectionism.
In their meeting, Xi told Abe that “interdependence between the two countries is deepening by the day”, and pledged to increase economic cooperation, according to Communist Party mouthpiece the People’s Daily.
Earlier in the day Abe, standing alongside Li, told a press conference that the two countries must “play a constructive role for the sake of this region’s peace and prosperity”.
“I believe active trade will deepen ties between Japanese and Chinese peoples further,” he said.
For his part, Li said “international conditions are unstable, and uncertainties have increased”, but the countries’ economic cooperation would “benefit the development of global free trade”.
The relationship has rapidly warmed up as Trump has slapped massive tariffs on China while also targeting Japanese exports in his effort to cut US trade deficits, despite touting his personal bonds with Abe and Xi.
But despite the feel-good vibes, Abe also delivered a sterner message, a Japanese spokesman said, warning China that “without stability in the East China Sea, there will not be a true improvement in the relationship.”
He also told Li that “the international community, including Japan, is watching carefully the human rights situation in China”.
– Trump ‘uncertainty’ –
Abe travelled with nearly 1,000 delegates from Japanese companies who struck 500 deals worth a total of $2.6 billion, Li said, without providing details.
The companies are eager for increased access to China’s massive market, while Beijing is interested in Japanese technology and corporate know-how.
The two leaders also oversaw the signing of several political agreements, including a currency swap deal and a mechanism to avoid accidental clashes between their militaries which often come in contact in the disputed East China Sea.
Hu Lingyuan, director of the Center for Japanese Studies at China’s Fudan University, said Trump’s trade policy had contributed to closer Sino-Japanese ties.
“The uncertainty in Trump policy made Abe feel that he could not bet only on the United States,” Hu told AFP.
“If he adjusts his relationship with China, he will have more initiative and space in the future when he is negotiating with the United States.”
China’s nationalistic Global Times said in an editorial that “though the US is quite an influential factor in China-Japan ties, the effect is limited”.
“If Beijing and Tokyo intend to plan their future bilateral relationship based on Washington’s attitude, they will only get lost,” the state-run daily said.
– ‘Safeguard free trade’ –
Abe’s three-day trip, which began Thursday, sets up the possibility that Xi will visit Japan next year.
Since an awkward 2014 encounter between Abe and Xi on the sidelines of a summit, there have been ministerial visits by both sides and a softening of rhetoric. Li visited Tokyo in May.
Abe and Li met on Thursday during a reception to celebrate the signing of the treaty that put Japanese and Chinese relations back on track after World War II.
But territorial disputes continue to cause frictions.
Just days before Abe’s trip, Tokyo lodged an official complaint after Chinese ships cruised around the disputed islands that Tokyo calls the Senkaku and Beijing labels the Diaoyu islands.
China has long denounced Japan for what it says is an insufficiently contrite attitude towards its role in World War II.
But ahead of the trip, Beijing has taken a more cordial stance than it has in the past.