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China, Japan seek warmer ties against backdrop of US trade friction

Beijing welcomes Tokyo to participate in China's reforms and opening up of its economy

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Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (left) and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (right) attending an event marking the 40th anniversary of the China-Japan Peace and Friendship Treaty at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Thursday.

Beijing

CHINESE Premier Li Keqiang told visiting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Thursday that Japan was welcome to participate in China's reforms and the opening up of its economy, Chinese state radio reported.

State radio also quoted Mr Li as saying that he hopes that China and Japan can work together to safeguard multilateralism and free trade. He also told Mr Abe, who arrived in Beijing earlier on Thursday, that he welcomes Japan to actively take part in China's Belt and Road infrastructure initiative.

Mr Abe is attending his first formal bilateral summit with Chinese leaders in seven years as the Asian rivals seek to build on a thaw in ties against a backdrop of trade friction with the United States.

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Mr Abe's three-day visit is expected to carve out new scope for cooperation between Asia's two biggest economies. It is also expected to promote trust, which has been fragile at times since they restored diplomatic relations in 1972.

"Japan and China are playing an indispensable role in the economic development of not just Asia but the world," Mr Abe said in a speech at a reception in Beijing soon after he arrived.

In the past year, China has stepped up its outreach to Japan and others as it locked horns with the United States over trade.

While Japan, worried about China's growing naval power, is keen for closer economic ties with its biggest trading partner, it must manage that rapprochement without upsetting its key security ally, the United States, with which it has trade problems of its own.

Mr Abe, who returned to power in 2012 when Sino-Japanese ties were in tatters due to a feud over East China Sea islands, has met Chinese President Xi Jinping many times since their first chilly conversation in 2014 on the sidelines of a regional summit in Beijing.

But his meeting with Mr Xi on Friday will be the first full-scale Sino-Japanese summit since 2011.

"Through this visit, I want to raise relations between the two countries to a new level," Mr Abe said ahead of his trip.

Flags of both countries lined Changan Avenue, a thoroughfare that cuts through the heart of Beijing near Tiananmen Square.

The two nations are due to sign about 50 project memorandums of understanding during Mr Abe's visit, according to a draft document seen by Reuters. Projects range from energy and health care to finance and cars, the draft showed.

Japan also hopes for progress towards implementing a 2008 agreement on jointly developing gasfields in disputed waters, and wants China to ease import limits on produce from areas affected by the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.

China may be hoping that Mr Abe makes a positive statement about its Belt and Road initiative, a vehicle to fund and build transport and trade links in more than 60 countries.

The Belt and Road project has come under fire for saddling poor nations with debt through big projects that are not economically viable. China rejects the criticism.

Japanese defence officials are also wary of its military implications, and Tokyo is pushing its Free and Open Pacific Strategy to promote trade and infrastructure in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

Japan wants to ensure that any joint projects with China are transparent, open and fiscally sound, officials said.

Despite the thaw, mistrust persists. War-time history still rankles, with China often complaining that Japan has not fully atoned for its occupation of parts of China before and during World War II.

But both sides will be hoping that more visits will follow.

"If Xi promises to come to Japan next year, that would be very big," said Kiyoyuki Seguchi, research director at the Canon Institute for Global Studies in Tokyo.

"If that is realised, the improvement in Japan-China relations will accelerate." REUTERS