TENSIONS between China and Japan which have threatened to spill over into a military stand-off eased last night, raising hopes of a historic fresh round of talks between the countries’ leaders this week.
If the talks materialise, it will be the first between Chinese president Xi Jinping and Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe since contacts were frozen two years ago.
Both countries have been at loggerheads over a range of disputes, but mostly over a group of uninhabited islands and the potentially lucrative and strategically useful waters around them.
The opportunity for talks at this week’s Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation Summit has been seen as a chance to reduce the friction, and has resulted in a flurry of diplomatic back-channelling in recent days to try for a breakthrough.
Japanese media quoted Japanese foreign minister Fumio Kishida as saying he asked his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, to arrange a meeting between Xi and Abe at the Apec summit tomorrow and Tuesday.
The Kyodo news agency said a meeting had yet to be finalised.
Face-to-face talks between Kishida and Wang would be the first meeting of both countries’ foreign ministers since September 2012.
The breakthrough came a day after the sides issued a joint statement saying they had agreed to gradually resume political, diplomatic and security dialogues.
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China froze high-level contacts over the island dispute and other contentious issues.
While tensions clearly remain high, both sides at least appear to want to make progress.
It was unclear if the Asian economic powerhouses had been lobbied by other influential nations.
But a statement noted that the sides acknowledged their “different positions” on the islands, called Diaoyu by China and Senkaku by Japan.
Although Japan has refused China’s demand to acknowledge that the islands’ sovereignty is in dispute, the statement indicated that Tokyo was at least willing to concede that different views exist.
Asked yesterday to confirm an Abe-Xi meeting, Wang demurred, but said China expected Japan to hold to the spirit of the statement brokered on Friday.
“We hope that the Japanese side will treat this consensus seriously, faithfully implement its commitment and create the necessary favourable atmosphere for a meeting between the two leaders,” Wang said.
Also in Beijing, US secretary of state John Kerry said Washington welcomed the improvement in bilateral ties, but said rebuilding the relationship would take time.
“We think that any steps that the two countries can take to improve the relationship and reduce the tensions are helpful not just to those two countries, but it’s helpful to the region,” Kerry said.
The China-Japan statement said the sides agreed to hold dialogue and consultation to prevent the island dispute from further deteriorating and to establish crisis management mechanisms.
China was incensed by Japan’s move to nationalise the islands in 2012, sparking violent anti-Japanese protests and prompting it to send patrol boats to confront Japanese coastguard vessels in the surrounding waters.
China also strongly objected to a visit last year by Abe to Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, which honours the nation’s war dead, including executed war criminals from the Second World War and invasion of Manchuria.
China has been pushing for a commitment from Abe not to visit Yasukuni, which it sees as a monument to Japan’s 20th century aggression against China and other Asian nations.
Along with sparking fears of an armed confrontation, the dispute has been blamed for an almost 50 per cent reduction in Japanese investment in China during the first half of the year.
Tomorrow’s conference in Beijing involves nations covering at least half of the world’s gross domestic product and 44 per cent of world trade, given the nations involved are also home to more than 40 per cent of the world’s population.
Other nations involved in the 21-country Pacific Rim gathering include Russia, the US and South Korea. It has also been targeted by pressure groups including Amnesty International, which wants China to release 76 pro-democracy activists detained during student protests in Hong Kong.
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