A delegation of over 100 executives from leading Japanese companies arrived Monday in Beijing to promote greater economic cooperation with China, but will not most likely be able to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping or Premier Li Keqiang while staying here as they had hoped.
At a time when no tangible progress has been yet made in improving government-to-government relations, the Japan-China Economic Association said it is instead scheduled to meet with Chinese Vice Premier Wang Yang, who is in charge of commercial affairs, Tuesday afternoon.
The visit by the association, headed by Fujio Cho, Toyota Motor Corp. honorary chairman, is the biggest business mission to travel between the two countries since bilateral ties severely deteriorated more than a year ago following renewed tensions over a group of small islands that both Tokyo and Beijing claim sovereignty over.
The delegation was seeking to meet with the two top leaders, Xi and Li, while staying in Beijing through Thursday, in addition to discussing with other senior officials issues such as those related to trade, investment and the environment.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said, "We hope that this kind of visit will help improve Japanese people's understanding of China" and China's position on bilateral relations.
He also said, "We hope that people from the two countries will make joint efforts to inject impetus to the improvement and the development of China-Japan relations."
In the afternoon, the delegation, whose members also include Hiromasa Yonekura, head of the Japan Business Federation or Keidanren, and Hitachi Ltd. Chairman Takashi Kawamura, held talks with China's Commerce Minister Gao Hucheng.
Gao told the business leaders he has high expectations for Japan, including the new economic fields of energy-saving and healthcare services, and added there is "a big potential" for bilateral investment, according to a delegation member.
Gao, however, did not forget to say that China believes Japan is solely responsible for the ongoing soured bilateral ties.
There have been no formal meetings between top leaders of Asia's two biggest economies since bilateral ties sank to their lowest point in years after the Japanese government purchased most of the Senkaku Islands from a private Japanese owner in September 2012 and put them under state control.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Xi, who assumed the presidency in March, have only had a 5-minute tete-a-tete in September shortly before the summit of the Group of 20 major economies in Russia.
China steadfastly maintains its claims to the Japan-controlled islands in the East China Sea, which it calls Diaoyu, and has insisted that Japan must drop its stance that no territorial dispute exists between the two countries before there can be a meeting of Abe and its two top leaders.
Despite a time of frosty ties between Tokyo and Beijing, however, there are some signs that economic activities between the two countries have been gradually recovering in recent months.
Sales of Japanese cars and other products in China tumbled for months after the purchase of the islands by Japan's previous government. But after one year sales are now back on track and Japan's exports to China rose 11.4 percent in September from a year earlier, while Japan's imports from its biggest trading partner hit a record value, soaring 30.9 percent.
Many executives from Japanese blue-chip companies were strongly hoping that the delegation's visit to China and a meeting if possible with Xi or Li would raise momentum of cooperation between the two countries.
But the Chinese government apparently has judged that the time is not yet ripe for Xi or Li to shake hands even with Japanese business leaders.
Still, China's decision to arrange a meeting between Wang and the delegation could be seen as a sign that Beijing remains interested in boosting economic exchanges with Japan.
Wang is known as having a good knowledge of Japan.
Before becoming one of the four vice ministers in March, Wang was the Communist Party's highest-ranking official of Guangdong Province, the country's major economic powerhouse where thousands of Japanese firms are operating.
In a separate development, former U.S. President Bill Clinton told an economic forum in Beijing on Monday, after meeting with Xi, that the international community does "not want to have conflicts between China and Japan."
Clinton urged the two countries to be future-oriented so that many countries in the Asia-Pacific region can "share prosperity."