TOKYO – Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi said Friday he will visit China this weekend for talks with his counterpart Qin Gang, becoming Japan's first top diplomat to do so in more than three years amid growing friction between the two countries, including new Japanese export controls and the detention of a Japanese national in Beijing.
Hayashi hopes to “engage in a candid and in-depth exchange of views toward establishing a constructive and stable relationship” in the talks with Qin and other officials during his April 1-2 visit, he told a news conference.
His trip comes after Japan announced Friday that it will tighten export controls on 23 materials used for semiconductor manufacturing, seen as an effort to limit China's access to advanced chipmaking technology, a step sought by the United States.
Hayashi is expected to demand the release of the detained Japanese national, discuss security concerns in the region and ask China to act “responsibly” on global issues including Russia's war on Ukraine.
He noted an agreement between the leaders of the two countries to build constructive and stable ties. “Japan-China relations are facing many challenges and concerns, although there are various possibilities" for cooperation, Hayashi said.
Despite close economic and business ties between the two Asian powers, Tokyo and Beijing have been increasingly at odds in recent years as Japan considers China’s growing influence in the region a threat to its national security and economy.
“I believe it is important to build a constructive and stable relationship while we insist on our position on some issues, seek (China's) responsible actions and continue our dialogue,” Hayashi said.
A visit by his predecessor, Toshimitsu Motegi, in 2019 was the last to China by a top Japanese diplomat, just prior to China's near-total closure of its borders amid strict pandemic control measures.
Commenting on Hayashi’s visit, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said it was in the “common interests of the two sides and the region to maintain the sound and stable development of China-Japan relations.”
Mao said Qin and other Chinese leaders would “have an in-depth exchange on bilateral relations and regional and international issues of mutual concern.”
However, in a reminder of the underlying tensions, Mao also criticized the new Japanese restrictions on exports of semiconductor manufacturing materials to China.
“Politicizing ... and weaponizing sci-tech and trade issues and intentionally undermining the stability of global supply and industrial chains would only hurt others as well as oneself,” she said.
Japan is among the U.S. allies that have followed Washington in restricting Beijing’s access to the sensitive technologjes.
Japanese Economy and Trade Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura said the export controls were imposed to prevent the materials from being diverted to military use. He said the decision was made “to fulfill Japan's global responsibility as a country possessing advanced chip technology” and not to target China or follow the U.S. move. Japan consulted with the United States, the Netherlands and other like-minded countries, Nishimura said.
An addition point of friction between the two sides is China's detention of an employee of the Japanese pharmaceutical company Astellas Pharma earlier this month on suspicion of spying. Japan's government has demanded his release and an explanation.
China's Foreign Ministry said the Japanese citizen is suspected of “engaging in espionage activities in violation of the criminal law ... and the Anti-Espionage Law of the People’s Republic of China."
Mao offered no new information about the case but said the detainee's legal rights would be protected and that he would have access to Japanese consular officials.
More than a dozen Japanese citizens with business or other connections to China have been arrested in the past over allegations including spying.
A long-festering dispute over uninhabited East China Sea islands controlled by Japan but claimed by China also flared again in mid-March, with both sides accusing the other of infringing on their maritime territory.
The islands are known as the Senkakus in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese. Taiwan also claims the islands but has forged agreements with Japan to avoid such conflicts.
China routinely sends coast guard vessels and planes into waters and airspace surrounding the islands to harass Japanese vessels in the area and force Japan to scramble jets in response.
Japan considers China a threat to its national and regional security and has been expanding its security cooperation with other “like-minded” countries in the region and Europe, as well as with NATO, while promoting a vision of a “free and open Indo-Pacific" as a counter to China.
Hayashi said Friday he will travel to Brussels after his China visit to attend a NATO foreign ministers’ meeting to reaffirm Japan's commitment to the rules-based international order and reinforce cooperation between Japan and NATO in their response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine and other key issues.
Japan is also concerned about growing joint military exercises between China and Russia around Japan's coasts.
Also Friday, China's Defense Ministry said it was setting up a direct telephone connection with its Japanese counterpart to “strengthen the capabilities of the two sides to manage and control maritime and air crises.”
The Chinese ministry has a similar hotline with the Pentagon. However, after the U.S. shooting down of a suspected Chinese spy balloon in February, China refused to accept a phone call from U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to discuss the matter, threatening unspecified retaliation instead.
AP videojournalist Haruka Nuga contributed to this report.