Japan's new China envoy urges stronger economic ties

Kyoko Hasegawa
New Japanese ambassador to China, Masato Kitera (R), delivers a speech while former ambassador, Uichiro Niwa, listens during a reception in Tokyo, on December 20, 2012. Kitera urged stronger economic ties with Beijing in an interview broadcast on Monday, after the incoming premier pledged to mend bilateral ties strained by a bitter territorial row

Japan's new envoy to China urged stronger economic ties with Beijing in an interview broadcast Monday, after the incoming premier pledged to mend bilateral ties strained by a bitter territorial row.

The dispute over the Tokyo-controlled Senkaku islands -- which Beijing calls the Diaoyus -- has soured relations between Asia's two biggest economies, with neither side willing to budge after months of wrangling.

"My mission number one is to improve the Japan-China relationship," Masato Kitera, a career diplomat who will succeed Uichiro Niwa as Japan's ambassador to China, told public broadcaster NHK.

"I will explain to China's senior officials we need to make economic ties warmer if our political relationship is cooling, as Japanese corporate activities in China are contributing to the Chinese economy," he said.

The dispute flared badly in September after Tokyo nationalised the islands, triggering protests across China that led to boycotts or attacks on Japanese businesses, with Japan's exports to China tumbling 14.5 percent on-year.

Beijing has also boycotted various events held in the both countries, including its decision not to send its finance minister and central bank chief to Tokyo for IMF and World Bank meetings held in October.

Beijing sent government boats into the archipelago's territorial waters almost every day, and upped the ante on December 13 with a flypast, in what Japan said was the first Chinese breach of its airspace since at least 1958.

"It is important to boost exchanges in various fields so as to ease bitter public sentiment against each other," Kitera said.

His comments come after Japan's incoming prime minister Shinzo Abe on Saturday also pledged to seek a thaw in ties with China as a report said he will send a special envoy on a fence-mending mission to Beijing.

Abe, who is expected to take office on Wednesday, spent much of his election campaign talking tough on China and after his victory ruled out any negotiations over the sovereignty of islands, which are also claimed by Taiwan.

Abe's sweeping parliamentary victory on December 16 was greeted with caution in Beijing, which said it was "highly concerned" over Japan's future direction under the new government.

Abe said last week he will dispatch former finance minister Fukushiro Nukaga to deliver a letter to South Korea's president-elect Park Geun-Hye, who also recently triumphed in national elections, in a bid to repair frayed relations.

Tokyo is embroiled in a separate row with Seoul over another set of islets, with tensions flaring up earlier this year after outgoing South Korean president Lee Myung-Bak paid a sudden visit to the disputed territory.

On Monday, Taiwan's intelligence chief Tsai Teh-sheng warned that the nationalist zeal of new leaders of Japan, China and South Korea may hamper any efforts to ease tensions over territorial disputes.

"Even though all sides have started seeking dialogue following the election in Japan, the likelihood of an unexpected clash over the issue is very high," he told parliament, referring to the Tokyo-controlled islands also claimed by China and Taiwan.