China and Japan Attempt to Ease Tensions

Kathrin Hille in Beijing
Disputed set of islands in East China Sea, referred to as Senkaku or Diaoyu islands.

China and Japan have taken the first diplomatic step in easing tensions over a bitter territorial dispute that has damaged trade between the two countries and threatened to spill over into military conflict.

Xi Jinping, China's new Communist party leader, and Natsuo Yamaguchi, a senior member of Japan's ruling coalition, on Friday held the first high-level meeting between the neighbours since the dispute over a group of Japanese-controlled islands in the East China Sea erupted in September.

"We should, like the old generation of leaders in our two countries did, show national responsibility, political wisdom and historical courage," said Mr Xi. He was referring to the decision in 1972 by Beijing and Tokyo to shelve disputes and normalise bilateral relations.

The conciliatory tone from the man who is expected to become president in March raises hopes for a new diplomatic effort to resolve the crisis over the islands, which are known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, and claimed by both.

Mr Yamaguchi, head of New Komeito, the coalition partner of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic party, gave Mr Xi a letter from Shinzo Abe in which the new prime minister expressed his willingness to work towards a "mutually beneficial strategic relationship".

"That senior leaders can meet is a turning point," said Xu Yiping, director of the Japan Research Centre at Beijing Foreign Studies University. "That Mr Yamaguchi could come shows Japan's sincerity in wanting to solve problems. And that Xi Jinping could see him shows the same sincerity on his side."

He added that he would now expect the two sides to come up with more concrete steps to lower tension.

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The Bloomberg news agency reported that Mr Yamaguchi had suggested both sides make efforts to hold a summit meeting, and Mr Xi told him that "high-level talks were important and he would seriously consider this".

According to a statement on the Chinese foreign ministry's website, Mr Xi said the Chinese government's policy of attaching importance to bilateral ties had not changed. He described China's stance on the disputed islands as unchanged and clear, and called on Japan to "find effective ways to appropriately manage and solve the problem through dialogue and negotiations".

The meeting follows an escalating stand-off between the naval and air defence forces from both countries.

Japan has controlled the islands since 1895. But the dispute flared into an acute crisis last year when the Japanese government nationalised some of the islands. The government explained the move as an attempt to block an acquisition by the nationalist Tokyo municipal government, which could have proved much more provocative to China.

However, Beijing rejected that explanation as a ploy, and responded with a series of measures aimed at strengthening its own claim on the islands. The government published a territorial baseline for the archipelago and filed a continental shelf claim which included the islands. Subsequently, Beijing regularly sent ships into the area.

Japan has protested about this as an incursion into its territory but China calls the patrols "normal" and claims that Tokyo no longer has uncontested control over the waters.

Chinese fighter aircraft have also started operating close to the islands more frequently, and aircraft from both sides have been scrambled against the other over the past few months, raising fears of an accident that could trigger open hostilities.