Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force and the Chinese navy plan to resume mutual visits by their naval vessels for the first time since 2011, as they step up defense exchanges to prevent inadvertent maritime clashes, Japanese government sources said Sunday.
The restart is set to be agreed when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe meets with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang during his three-day trip to Beijing from Thursday, the sources said, as bilateral tension remains over a group of Chinese-claimed, Japanese-controlled uninhabited islets in the East China Sea.
(The Izumo, Japan's helicopter carrier)
Japan may invite a Chinese warship to the MSDF's naval review to be held around October next year, one of the Japanese government sources said.
Japan and China launched a bilateral communications mechanism in June and during Abe's visit they are also set to sign an agreement to facilitate cooperation on search and rescue operations in waters off the two countries, people familiar with the matter said earlier.
China is involved in a number of trade and military disputes with the United States and it "has (always) improved relations with Japan whenever ties with the United States have worsened," a Chinese political scientist said.
Such visits by naval vessels were first agreed by Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori and Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji in 2000 to facilitate bilateral defense exchanges.
MSDF destroyers and Chinese warships made mutual visits from 2007 to 2011, but the exchanges came to a halt when the Japanese government put the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, called Diaoyu by China, under state control in 2012, straining bilateral ties. Chinese vessels have frequently intruded into Japanese waters around the Senkakus since.
"In light of mutual understanding and confidence building, defense exchanges are very important," Japanese Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya said Friday at the outset of talks with Chinese counterpart Wei Fenghe in Singapore.
"I'd like to take this opportunity to pave the way for a full-blown improvement of Japan-China defense exchanges," he said in the first official meeting between Japanese and Chinese defense ministers since November 2015, in the latest sign of warming bilateral relations.
It will be Abe's first visit to China to primarily discuss bilateral issues, rather than attend international meetings, since he returned to power in late 2012.
His trip to Beijing, timed with the 40th anniversary of the taking effect of the two countries' peace and friendship treaty, will include a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping.