The China-backed RCEP deal excludes the US and will account for 30 percent of the world’s economy and population.
China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi is set to visit Tokyo on Tuesday, marking the first such high-level trip since Japan picked a new leader in September. His visit comes amid mounting concerns over Beijing’s growing assertiveness in the region.
It is widely expected that Wang could make a courtesy call on Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who has so far sought to balance Japan’s deep economic reliance on China while addressing security worries, including Beijing’s claims over disputed East China Sea islets.
While Suga has steered clear of the harsh anti-China rhetoric used by the United States, Japan’s key ally, he has moved to counter its influence by deepening ties with Australia and making his first overseas trip to Vietnam and Indonesia.
“There are various pending issues between the two countries, so through high-level meetings, it is important to reach solutions to each issue one by one,” Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi told reporters on Monday before the bilateral meeting.
He said he would have a “frank exchange” of views on bilateral relations with Wang, including on how to resume traffic between the two countries during the pandemic.
Japanese media reported that Motegi would also raise concerns about China’s beefed-up activity in the East China Sea.
While encouraging its companies to diversify supply chains away from China, Japan is getting closer to Beijing through trade agreements.
Earlier this month, China signed the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) with other 14 economies including Japan and South Korea, but the US was not party to the deal.
It was the first multilateral trade deal for China, the first bilateral tariff-reduction arrangement between Japan and China and the first time China, Japan and South Korea have been in a single free-trade bloc.
Wang will fly to South Korea after Japan, for talks that will include North Korea.
“For China, this visit is important for replanning a strategy towards the two US-allies under the coming Biden administration,” said Toshiya Takahashi, an associate professor of international relations at Shoin University.
President-elect Joe Biden will be sworn into office in January after defeating incumbent Donald Trump in polls earlier this month.
Experts said Wang’s diplomacy could help lay the groundwork for a trilateral summit with Japan and South Korea to promote trade partnerships.
Chinese President Xi Jinping said China would “actively consider” signing up for another regional free trade pact, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).
Japan, a key member state of the pact and next year’s chair, aims to expand the CPTPP, potentially paving a way for China to join the pact after Trump walked away from it. The the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was originally a key part of President Barack Obama’s so-called pivot to Asia.
Motegi, the Japanese foreign minister, said on Friday that China’s expression of interests was “welcome” but it needs further assessment in accordance with the pact’s rules.