Li Xhaoxing's visit will pave the way for Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao's trip to Japan in April. Li spoke of 'growing goodwill' but what has changed since demonstrators attacked Japanese interests in Beijing two years ago?
SMITH: Well, I think a lot has changed. Prime Minister Abe visited Beijing in October 8th last fall, with the intent of improving the bilateral relationship and I think he made it very clear to Hu Jintao and others, that Japan was interested in a very different relationship with China. I think the Chinese to thought that the time had come for the two countries to put behind them some of the tensions that had characterised the relationship under Prime Minister Koizumi.
LAM: Mr Shinzo Abe as you said, though seen as a hardliner, visited Beijing shortly after taking office last September and while that helped smooth the path, do you think also that Beijing sees him as a fresh opportunity for a clean slate?
SMITH: I think they do. I think they thought the political moment had come. I do think they still feel that the issues of history, Yasakuni Shrine visits, et cetera, are still problematic inside China, but I think they saw Abe as being very willing and ready to begin a conversation on a much more cordial tone.
LAM: Shinzo Abe of course has reportedly refrained from saying whether he'll visit Yasakuni where the of course some Japanese war criminals have been honoured. Do you think he'll depart from his predecessor Junichiro Koizumi's controversial path? Do you think he might take a domestic stand and not go?
SMITH: Well, that's the million dollar question. When he went to Beijing last October, I think his approach was to say I'm not going to talk about whether I'm going to go or not going to go to Yasakuni, but rather that I want to say that I understand Chinese feelings about this issue. And then he moved on to say that he wanted the Sino-Japanese relationship to be much more forward-looking and to look at issues of common concern within the region.
I think for now, domestic pressures are not on Abe Shinzo to go to Yasakuni and I think he won't go, at least until the Upper House election this summer.
LAM: Mr Li Xhaoxing of course today is scheduled to meet his Japanese counterpart, Taro Aso. What do you think they'll talk about?
SMITH: Well, I think they will continue in this mode of we need to put the relationship on a common, a good sound footing. He's already met with the cabinet secretary and the speaker of the parliament and the head of the Komeito Party, which is the LDP's governing Coalition partner; foreign minister Li has been very outspoken about China's desires to work with Japan on this issue of the agreement with North Korea. In fact, he spoke very clearly about Chinese understanding of the Japanese peoples' concerns about North Korea, again alluding to this abduction issue. And he said that China wants to be of help if it can, in resolving that issue with Japan.
So he's been very accommodating and very sensitive I think to the Japanese political mood on North Korea.
LAM: Realistically though, what can Beijing do, apart from counselling Pyongyang to look into this issue?
SMITH: I think that's it. I think what they're basically saying is, we understand that this is linked to your participation in the six party talks and we will do what we can to support you in that. Beyond that, I'm not sure that they can do anything concretely. This visit of the foreign minister to Tokyo, is going to be the precursor for the much anticipated visit in April of the Chinese Premier Wen, and I think that's the place where we will see some of the real concrete issues that are difficult issues for Japan and China come to the fore.