The Chinese flag, left, sits next to the Japanese flag in front of a monitor displaying the exchange rate of the yen in Tokyo, Japan. (Photographer: Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg)

China Will Join First Japan, South Korea Summit Since 2015

(Bloomberg) -- Chinese Premier Li Keqiang will travel to Tokyo for his country’s first joint summit with Japan and South Korea since 2015, the clearest sign yet of improving ties between the three neighbors.

China Will Join First Japan, South Korea Summit Since 2015

The meeting was announced by China and Japan late Sunday, as Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono concluded a two-day visit aimed at repairing his country’s strained relationship with China.

Norio Maruyama, a spokesman for the Japanese delegation, said the summit could set the stage for reciprocal visits by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping -- a trip neither leader has made since coming to power in 2012.

“What we are envisaging is a visit to China by Prime Minister Abe and after that a visit to Japan by President Xi Jinping,” Maruyama said.

A three-way summit would demonstrate not only improvement in ties between Beijing and Tokyo, but in their relationships with Seoul, as well. China recently shelved a months-long dispute with South Korea over a U.S. missile shield, and Abe last week announced plans to attend next month’s Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.

China and Japan agreed to hold the summit “as soon as possible,” Kono and his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, said in a statement released after a four-hour meeting Sunday.

Relations between China and Japan have been frosty since a 2012 crisis over disputed islands in the East China Sea reignited longstanding suspicion between the two World War II foes. Kono -- the first Japanese foreign minister to visit China since April 2016 -- said the two sides need to work together to deal with issues of global relevance, “in particular the North Korea issue.”

“It is important not only to discuss issues related to the two countries, but for Japan and China to stand side by side to deal with global issues,” Kono said.

Kenji Kanasugi, director-general of the Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau at Japan’s foreign ministry, will meet Kong Xuanyou, China’s special envoy for Korean affairs, on Monday in Beijing to discuss issues on the Korean peninsula, Japan’s foreign ministry said in a statement.

‘Very Frank’

Kono and Wang exchanged “very frank” views on the East China Sea and reaffirmed their commitments denuclearizing Korean Peninsula and the need to fully implement United Nation sanctions against North Korea, Maruyama said.

The two sides also discussed ways to “improve the business environment” and cooperation in third countries between Japan and China, he said. China is Japan’s biggest trading partner, while Japan is China’s second-largest single-nation partner after the U.S. Trade between the two countries was worth some $302 billion in 2016, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

The diplomatic thaw has progressed despite continued signs of tension between the two sides. Earlier this month, China urged Japan to stop “stirring up trouble” after the country protested a nuclear Chinese submarine near the disputed islands.

Li, the Chinese premier, told Kono on Sunday that Japan needed to properly handle sensitive issues related to history and differences between the two sides, according to China National Radio. Wang, the foreign minister, similarly urged Japan to put words into actions when it comes to normalizing the relationship.

“At present, China-Japan relations are at a crucial stage,” he said. “There is positive progress, but many disturbances and obstacles remain.”

A survey conducted late last year just 23 percent of Chinese respondents and 6.7 percent of Japanese saw ties between the two countries as good.

(A previous version of this story corrected date of last trilateral summit to say it was held in 2015.)

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.