Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (left) shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping prior to a bilateral meeting at the Group of 20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, on July 8, 2017. Photo: Yomiuri Shimbun

Despite efforts this year to improve bilateral relations between Beijing and Tokyo, friction in key areas will persist in 2018, experts say.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping made a key symbolic gesture on the margins of a recent regional summit in Vietnam, agreeing to make a “new start” in ties between the two regional powers.

In the spirit of their agreement, as the Japan Times recalls on Tuesday, Abe suggested recently that Japan might cooperate with China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Japan’s most powerful business lobby followed up on Abe’s comment’s with an agreement to open a bilateral business dialogue seeking cooperation with China under the BRI framework.

In terms of optics, the development is a big win for China, but Japanese firms will want to see results. A survey of 220 Japanese firms earlier this year showed only 6% saw opportunities in the Beijing-led initiative.

Fundamental differences on security matters also persist. Issues of contention include disputed islands in the East China Sea, different approaches to North Korea, as well as Japanese quadrilateral cooperation with Australia, India and the US.

“We’re only one collision of coast guard vessels away from plunging into the abyss,” Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University Japan was quoted by JT as saying. He added that “Japanese participation in (US) freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea has drawn criticism from China, so if those patrols are escalated, that could pose problems for a thaw in relations.”

“Japan has a long-term vision of securing a leadership role in the region … if there is more progress in quadrilateral (talks) or if Japan pushes forward with the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor cooperation agreement with India, these variables will affect how China can realistically warm relations with Japan,” Stephen Nagy, a fellow at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada was quoted as saying.

Bilateral summits this year will shed further light on the trajectory of the relationship, with Abe expressing willingness to travel to China and extend an invitation for Xi to reciprocate. According to Japanese foreign ministry sources cited by JT, planning for those trips will have to wait on the outcome of a long-delayed trilateral summit in Japan, involving Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

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