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Are China's relations with Japan entering a new era?

TALKS between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe in Osaka before the G-20 summit illustrate the much improved relationship between the two countries, with both sides talking about creating "a new era" in their relationship.

One sign was Mr Xi's ready acceptance of an invitation from Mr Abe to pay an official visit to Japan "when cherry blossoms bloom" next year. "It is a good idea for me to visit Japan next spring," the Chinese leader responded.

But when Mr Abe first extended the invitation last October, Beijing was noncommittal and left the invitation dangling for months.

Muted was the hectoring tone so often adopted by Chinese officials, such as when Foreign Minister Wang Yi told Japanese officials last September that Japan should "cherish" its improved ties with China.

Mr Wang seemed to blame Tokyo - and Tokyo alone - for the unravelling of relations during the last decade, saying at a March press conference that whenever Japan "honours the various political principles already reached, the relationship will steer clear of obstacles and interference and enjoy a stable and bright outlook".

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Mr Xi avoided such haughtiness and instead referred to Japan as China's partner. The two countries are the world's second and third largest economies and, together, could form a formidable partnership. But after long years of strained relations, ties are unlikely to improve without twists and turns.

China is pleased that Japan, initially reluctant, has agreed to involvement in the Belt and Road Initiative by participating in infrastructure programmes in third countries. In this way, Japan can mitigate Chinese influence in those countries while improving relations with China.

The two countries are being pushed towards each other by political and economic factors. Japan, for example, is under unrelenting pressure from the United States to reduce its US$69 billion trade surplus and to pay more for the American security alliance.

The two leaders held formal talks with their top aides in attendance for an hour, followed by a dinner hosted by Mr Abe. For some reason, Mr Xi arrived before the rest of his delegation and, briefly, cut a solitary figure on his side of the table while facing Mr Abe, flanked by a full complement of senior Japanese officials.

Surprisingly, Mr Abe raised the issue of Hong Kong, despite China's stand that other countries should not interfere in its internal affairs. A Japanese spokesman confirmed that "the prime minister pointed out the importance of a free, open and prosperous Hong Kong under the 'one country, two systems' formula with the recent extradition bill situation in mind". Mr Xi's response is not known.

Of course, the improved atmosphere does not mean that all - or indeed any - problems have been solved. Issues involving territorial disputes, history and natural resources all remain. But with lower tensions, there is a chance for diplomacy.

China largely retains the initiative. On the dispute over the Senkaku, or Diaoyu, islands, which are controlled by Tokyo but claimed by Beijing, Chinese ships are constantly in the vicinity and there is little likelihood of a drawback although Mr Abe called on Mr Xi to "exercise self-restraint".

Similarly, on history, China can turn the anti-Japanese propaganda faucet on and off at will. In 2015, China under Mr Xi, 70 years after the war ended, designated Dec 13 as the Nanjing massacre commemoration day and Sept 3 as victory over Japan day.

In practical terms, a significant achievement of the Osaka talks is the agreement to revive understandings reached in 2007 to turn the East China Sea into a "Sea of Peace, Cooperation and Friendship" even though the sea boundary between the two countries has not been demarcated, with China rejecting a "median line" proposed by Japan.

This was followed by an understanding in 2008 on a Japan-China joint development in a zone where the two sides would, through joint exploration, select sites for joint development based on the principle of mutual benefit. "Details will be decided by the both sides through consultation," said a joint press statement issued on June 18, 2008.

Since then, however, there has been no movement. Talks were cancelled in the wake of severe downturns in the relationship in 2010 over the disputed islands, and China refused to discuss the issue.

In the intervening years, China has - according to Japan - unilaterally "accelerated its development activities of natural resources in the East China Sea, and the government of Japan has confirmed that there are 16 structures in total on the Chinese side of the geographical equidistance line between Japan and China".

Now that China has agreed to revive the joint development accord, its implementation will be a litmus test of the bilateral relationship. It will also reflect the value, or lack thereof, of reaching agreements with China.

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