China, Japan Vow North Korea Cooperation, Plan High-Level Visits

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(Bloomberg) -- The foreign ministers of China and Japan agreed to work closely to push North Korea to abandon its nuclear program, in the latest sign of improved cooperation between Asia’s two largest economies.

“To get North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons and missiles in a complete, irreversible and verifiable way, we agreed we must enforce the relevant Security Council resolutions and work closely together,” Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono told reporters Sunday in Tokyo after a meeting with Chinese counterpart Wang Yi.

Wang’s trip -- the first of its kind in more than than eight years -- comes ahead of a summit between the two Koreas and a potential meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un. China and Japan are trying to repair relations amid policy whiplash from the U.S. over trade and security.

Kono said he and Wang agreed to improve ties by having their leaders pay mutual visits, starting with a visit next month to Japan by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang for a trilateral summit involving South Korean President Moon Jae-in. While Wang didn’t specifically refer to a leadership meeting, according to a readout of the meeting from China’s foreign ministry, he said his visit had established the conditions for the “next step” in high-level exchanges.

Long-fraught ties between Tokyo and Beijing deteriorated to a 40-year low after the Japanese government’s 2012 purchase of disputed islets near Taiwan sparked Chinese demonstrations, damaged trade and even raised fears of a military clash. Since taking office at the height of the dispute, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has sought rapprochement with his country’s largest trading partner.

Read: China and Japan Revive Economic Dialogue Amid U.S. Trade Threats

Abe finally managed to turn the tide last year with a qualified pledge of cooperation on Chinese President Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road trade and infrastructure initiative. Now, China has an added incentive to repair ties with Japan, after a series of surprises from Trump on North Korea, Taiwan and trade sanctions.

Wang said the visit came in response to Japan’s continuing “positive policies” toward China and added that he hoped the relationship was headed back to a “normal track.”

“For the Abe administration, China is essential to effectively pressuring North Korea,” said Madoka Fukuda, a professor of global politics at Hosei University in Tokyo. China is motivated by a lack of transparency in U.S. policy making, as well as tougher American security and trade stances, she added.

Abe is set to meet Trump in Florida this week, where he plans to press the president to maintain a hard line on North Korea and seek to persuade him to take a more multilateral approach to trade.

Tensions Linger

Despite the diplomatic push, tensions over territory and Japan’s militarist history remain. Coast guard and military ships from both countries continue to tail one another around the uninhabited Senkaku islands, known as the Diaoyus to China. Japan’s Self-Defense Forces activated a new amphibious unit to help defend remote islands just a week ago.

Wang alluded to those tensions, citing “complex and sensitive factors” in the relationship. He urged Japan to use “history as a mirror,” and not view each other as threats.

A poll published in December found a marked fall in the percentage of respondents in Japan and China who saw ties between the two countries negatively. Still, few see the relationship as good.

Trump on TPP

A high-level Japan-China economic dialogue will resume Monday, amid concerns in both countries about the potential for a trade war sparked by the U.S. The Chinese are seeking Japanese cooperation on U.S. steel and aluminum tariffs implemented last month, Kyodo News reported Saturday, citing people close to the talks.

Kono said that he hoped the first economic dialogue between the countries in eight years would be a “fruitful discussion.”

Trump threw fresh confusion into trade negotiations Thursday by instructing advisers to review the possibility of returning to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. The TPP, which Trump withdrew from soon after taking office last year, includes 11 Pacific Rim nations, but not China.

Successful visits by Wang and Li would provide positive publicity at a crucial time for Abe, whose chances of winning a ruling party leadership election in September have been damaged by a series of allegations of cronyism and government cover-ups. Recent polls show public support for his cabinet has fallen below disapproval.

“For China, Trump is unstable and unreliable,” said Yasuhiro Matsuda, a professor of international politics at the University of Tokyo. “Even if Abe resigns, Japan is relatively stable. So they can use ties with Japan as a form of insurance.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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