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China's top diplomat to visit Japan in preparation for Xi-Abe meeting

The Japanese and Chinese governments are in talks for a visit to Japan by a top Chinese diplomat in June to lay the groundwork for a potential meeting between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Xi Jinping, Japan's Kyodo News reported on Wednesday, as the two countries are divided over the solution to the North Korean nuclear issue and sovereignty claims in the East China Sea.

Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi is expected to meet Abe during his visit next month, as the two countries mark the 45th anniversary of the normalization of the diplomatic ties, the Kyodo News report said, citing several sources close to the matter.

According to the sources, both governments had affirmed by mid-May that Yang would pay a visit to Japan in preparation for the Abe-Xi summit.

In meetings with Yang, Japanese officials are expected to ask China to put more pressure on North Korea, which is stepping up its efforts to develop the missile and nuclear weapons programs. The uninhabited Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea claimed by both countries may also be on the agenda during Yang's visit, according to the Kyodo News report.

"As far as the status is concerned, it is very possible that the heads of state of China and Japan will have a summit," Hu Lingyuan, director of the Center for Japanese Studies at Fudan University, told, one of the leading Chinese news organizations.

Abe has been strenuously seeking an opportunity to have a face-to-face summit with his Chinese counterpart Xi since their brief meeting in November last year on the sidelines of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Lima, Peru.

Over the weekend, Abe beat the expectations by sending a delegation to the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation held in Beijing. Toshihiro Nikai, secretary-general of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), led the delegation and was tasked with delivering a letter from Abe to Xi.

A highlight of the meeting between Xi and Nikai during the Belt and Road Forum was that the LDP's secretary-general requested the Chinese president to read Abe's holograph on the nail, which is at variance with the traditional diplomatic practices, according to a report by the Nikkei.

The Nikkei report also said that in his letter to Xi, Abe expressed his willingness to mend fences with China amid the island disputes in the East China Sea, deepen cooperation under the "Belt and Road" initiative and continue the dialogue to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue.

On Monday, Abe told a Japanese television that he hoped to meet Xi on the sidelines of the Group of 20 leaders' summit in July, which both leaders plan to attend.

Economic considerations

Yang Bojiang, deputy head of the Institute of Japan Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said that Abe is seeking improvement in the bilateral relations out of consideration for domestic economic development.

"From 2013 to 2016, Abeconomics was gradually played a weaker role in stimulating the Japanese economy. America's exit from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement and the Asian Development Bank (ADB)'s incompetence in financing the infrastructure construction projects in Southeast Asia has forced Abe to resort to China's 'Belt and Road' initiative and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) for the realization of Japan's economic goals," Yang said.

Japan and the US, the major backers of the ADB, are the only members of the Group of Seven countries yet to join the China-led AIIB.

Concern over isolation

After Xi and his US counterpart Donald Trump met at the latter's Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida in April, some Japanese media have voiced concerns that Japan is at the risk of isolation.

On the eve of the Belt and Road Forum, China and the US agreed to take action by mid-July to increase access for US financial firms and expand trade in beef and chicken, the first outcomes of 100 days of trade talks that the two countries began last month. Also, Trump sent a delegation led by Matt Pottinger, special assistant to the president and the National Security Council's senior director for East Asia, to attend the forum, which is seen as one of China's competing initiatives against the Obama administration's TPP, which excludes China.

The US participation of the Belt and Road Forum has raised speculations that Trump may reverse Obama's decision to join the AIIB which boosts a membership of 77 nations.

"There are noises about China engaging in the Trump's Rebuild America Infrastructure Plan, while in turn the US may become a member of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank," said Jean-Pierre Lehmann, an emeritus professor of international political economy at IMD business school, in an article published on the Straits Times' website on Tuesday.

"The US and China are moving closer, and Japan may be left over," a Japanese delegate attending the Belt and Road Forum told the Nikkei.

As South Korean President Moon Jae-in has cast doubt on a 2015 deal with Japan over Korean women forced into sexual service for Japanese soldiers during World War II and the relationship between China and the Philippines has greatly improved since President Rodrigo Duterte's visit to Beijing last October, Japan is facing a changed international environment, prompting it to mend fences with China, said Yang.

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