Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Picture: REUTERS
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Picture: REUTERS

Japan’s Shinzo Abe and his Chinese counterpart, Li Keqiang, commemorated the 40th anniversary of a friendship treaty on Thursday, at the start of a rare trip to Beijing by the Japanese prime minister, who is seeking to repair frayed ties.

Abe’s visit is part of a painstaking courtship aimed at winning over the world’s second economy after a disastrous falling-out in 2012, when Tokyo "nationalised" disputed islands claimed by Beijing.

Slowly defrosting relations have warmed rapidly in recent months as the two countries face down huge tariffs from US President Donald Trump, who is set on reducing American trade deficits with both countries.

Economic ties

Looking to hedge against the US leader, Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping are expected to discuss how to improve economic co-operation between the world’s second- and third-largest economies when they meet on Friday.

Japanese business is eager for increased access to China’s market, while Beijing is interested in Japanese technology and corporate know-how.

During a reception to celebrate the signing of the treaty that put Japanese and Chinese relations back on track after World War 2, Li called for the countries to "jointly promote regional peace" and "safeguard multilateralism and free trade," according to state broadcaster CCTV. "Japan and China play an irreplaceable role in the economic development of Asia and even the world," Abe said, according to CCTV, calling on both sides to work together to "promote world peace".

Abe’s visit is the first by a Japanese prime minister since 2011. Since an awkward 2014 encounter between Abe and Xi on the sidelines of a summit, there have been ministerial visits by both sides and a softening of rhetoric.

"Our two countries have been making continuous efforts to improve relations," Abe said before flying to Beijing.

Abe and Xi are likely to focus on a range of potential deals, including joint investments in infrastructure in regional nations, including Indonesia and the Philippines.

Abe said they are also to discuss North Korea and territorial frictions, seeking to make "the East China Sea a sea of peace, friendship and co-operation".

Abe’s three-day trip sets up the possibility that Xi will visit Japan in 2019.

China has long denounced Japan for what it says is an insufficiently contrite attitude towards its role in World War 2.

But ahead of the trip, Beijing has taken a more cordial stance than it has in the past.