Abe Hails China Ties, Raises Tough Issues as Xi Visits Japan

Isabel Reynolds and Emi Nobuhiro
Abe Hails China Ties, Raises Tough Issues as Xi Visits Japan

(Bloomberg) -- Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe praised warming ties with China on Xi Jinping’s first visit to the country in a decade, even as he raised a long list of complaints including unfair business practices and Chinese coast guard activity around disputed islands.

Xi met Abe shortly after arriving in Osaka on Thursday, as Asia’s two largest economies seek to preserve economic ties amid trade fights and renewed territorial tensions. He had last come to Japan as vice president in 2009, while the last top Chinese leader to visit was then-President Hu Jintao in 2010.

“I want to open up a new age of Japan-China relations hand in hand with President Xi,” Abe told reporters as the leaders met in Osaka on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit. He invited Xi to visit Japan next year “when the cherry trees are in blossom, and raise Japan-China ties to the next level.” Xi said it was a good idea.

While Xi is set for a potentially pivotal meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump, he’s poised for a warm welcome from other G-20 leaders. Xi’s meetings with Abe -- including dinner Thursday in Osaka -- mark the latest high point in a years-long effort to repair relations after an old dispute over East China Sea islands flared in 2012.

Territorial Dispute

The visit underscores Abe’s struggle to balance Japan’s reliance on China as its largest export market and the U.S. as its sole treaty ally. Even as the two leaders prepared for the visit, the number of Chinese coast guard ships sailing in and around what Japan sees as its territorial waters in the East China Sea reached its highest level in three years.

Abe touched on many of the most difficult issues overshadowing the bilateral relationship in their meeting, Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasutoshi Nishimura told reporters. He urged Xi to curb the activity of Chinese ships around disputed islands known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China. Abe also raised international concerns about militarization in the South China Sea.

The two leaders agreed to cooperate on natural resources based on a 2008 accord and to develop free and open trade, according to Nishimura, though Abe also urged Xi to take action including on market-distorting subsidies, strengthening protection for intellectual property and tackling forced technology transfers.

Referring to the standoff in recent weeks in Hong Kong over a proposed extradition treaty, Abe emphasized the importance of a free and open Hong Kong under the “one country, two systems” principle, Nishimura said. He also raised the issue of the human rights of the Uighur and other groups in China, Nishimura said.

Improving Ties

Abe raised the issues even as he seeks to maintain a friendly atmosphere by restoring a pattern of mutual visits that ceased after Japan purchased some of the disputed East China Sea islands in 2012, prompting protests in China. In October, he became the first Japanese prime minister to pay an official visit to China since 2011. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, a top Xi aide, made his first trip to Japan in that role last May.

Xi was supportive of efforts to improve ties between Japan and North Korea, Nishimura told reporters. Japan, which has been a frequent target of Kim Jong Un’s nuclear threats over the years, has floated the possibility of a summit between Abe and the North Korean leader, with little to show for it so far.

Meanwhile, Abe and U.S. President Donald Trump affirmed at a separate meeting that the two allies had no plans to review their joint security agreement, Nishimura said Friday. The U.S. and Japan agreed to continue trade talks to reach a “win-win” agreement at an early date, Nishimura said.

(Updates with Trump-Abe meeting in final paragraph. A previous version of this story corrected Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasutoshi Nishimura’s title.)

--With assistance from Yuko Takeo and Shoko Oda.

To contact the reporters on this story: Isabel Reynolds in Tokyo at ireynolds1@bloomberg.net;Emi Nobuhiro in Tokyo at enobuhiro@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Brendan Scott at bscott66@bloomberg.net, Karen Leigh, Stuart Biggs, Mark Williams

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