Japan and China agreed Tuesday to start allowing mutual business trips without observing a 14-day quarantine period before the end of the month, a major easing of coronavirus-necessitated travel restrictions, as part of efforts to help the world's second- and third-largest economies recover.
In a meeting in Tokyo, Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, however, remained apart over Tokyo's concerns about repeated intrusions by official Chinese vessels into Japanese territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands, a group of Japan-administered islets in the East China Sea.
"I conveyed Japan's stance over the Senkaku Islands and strongly urged positive action by the Chinese side. I confirmed (with Wang) to continue the dialogue," Motegi said during a joint press availability session with Wang after their meeting.
Wang, who doubles as a state councilor, vowed to "safeguard China's sovereignty" over the islands, known in China as Diaoyu, insisting the country's stance that the islets have been Beijing's inherent territory since ancient times.
To avert accidental clashes at sea and in the air amid tensions around the islands, Wang said he agreed with Motegi to set up an emergency hotline linking senior Japanese and Chinese defense officials by the end of this year.
On U.S.-China relations, Wang and Motegi discussed them for a "considerable time," a Japanese Foreign Ministry official said, but refrained from giving details, including whether they exchanged views on the incoming administration of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden.
Wang's visit came as Japan faces a diplomatic balancing act as it tries to strengthen ties with China, its largest trade partner, and its key security ally the United States at a time tensions remain high between Washington and Beijing over trade, security and human rights issues.
Economically, the two neighbors are looking to enhance ties. Japan and China, together with 13 other Asia-Pacific countries, recently signed the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, the first free trade agreement involving Tokyo and Beijing.
Tuesday's agreement on the resumption of business travel is "expected to contribute to revitalizing the economies of Japan and China and promoting mutual understanding," Motegi said.
Under the agreement for reciprocal travel, Japan and China will allow businesspeople on short-term visits to be exempted from the usual 14-day quarantine period upon arrival if they test negative for the coronavirus and submit an itinerary of their activities.
The arrangement, which follows similar frameworks Japan has launched with Singapore, South Korea and Vietnam, comes as the business community in Japan has said the 14-day self-isolation requirement poses a barrier to making trips to China, according to Japanese officials.
However, for expatriates and other long-term residents, the 14-day quarantine requirement after arriving in the respective countries remains in effect.
China accounted for the largest number of foreign visitors to Japan, with some 9.59 million people, including about 370,000 for business, in 2019, according to data from the Japan National Tourism Organization.
To further enhance business ties, Motegi and Wang also affirmed that the two governments will hold a ministerial-level economic dialogue next year to strengthen bilateral cooperation over environmental protection, health care, electronic commerce, energy-saving measures and innovation.
Wang said he also agreed with Motegi to make efforts at realizing the early enforcement of the RCEP agreement and move forward negotiations on a trilateral free trade pact, also involving South Korea.
The ministers agreed to strengthen rules-based multilateral trade frameworks, he said.
Japan and China will also establish panels to promote talks on tackling climate change and easing import restrictions on Japanese food products that China imposed following the Fukushima nuclear accident triggered by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster, the ministers said.
With the Tokyo Olympics slated to be held next summer and the Beijing Winter Games in 2022, the ministers also agreed to cooperate in hosting the sports events.
On regional issues, Motegi urged China for restraint in its aggressive posturing in the South China Sea and to give a transparent explanation in response to criticisms about its alleged human rights abuses of Muslim Uyghurs, according to the official.
The Japanese minister also expressed Japan's concerns about China's handling of pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong after it imposed a national security law on the territory and requested appropriate action for maintaining a free and open Hong Kong, the official said.
Wang is the highest-ranked official from Beijing to visit Japan since Yang Jiechi, a member of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China Central Committee, in late February. Yang outranks Wang as China's top foreign policy official.
Wang will have a separate meeting with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga on Wednesday, according to the Japanese government.
Motegi and Wang did not discuss the rescheduling of a state visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to Japan during their talks, the official said. Motegi said, ahead of the meeting, the two countries are prioritizing measures to curb the coronavirus pandemic.
Xi's first state visit to Japan since he became president in 2013 was originally planned for around spring this year but was put off due to the onset of the global health crisis.