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China's Xi and Japan's Abe hold landmark meeting

China's President Xi Jinping shakes hands with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, during their meeting on the sidelines of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meetings in Beijing, China.
Kim Kyung-Hoon-Pool | Getty Images
China's President Xi Jinping shakes hands with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, during their meeting on the sidelines of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meetings in Beijing, China.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe held formal talks on Monday for the first time since the two leaders took office, a breakthrough in ending a two-year row between Asia's biggest economies over history and territory.

China and Japan, the world's second- and third-largest economies, have sparred over disputed islands, regional rivalry and the bitter legacy of Japan's wartime occupation of China.

The meeting between Abe and Xi, which took place in Beijing's Great Hall of the People, came three days after the two countries agreed to work on improving ties and signaled willingness to put their rival claims over disputed islands on the back burner. They met on the sidelines of a gathering of Asia-Pacific leaders, Japan's foreign ministry said.

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Rebuilding trust between the long-time rivals will not be easy. In signs that fundamental problems would not be resolved easily, Abe has previously said that there had been no change in Japan's stance on the isles at the heart of the territorial dispute, while China's top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, urged Japan to properly address sensitive issues like history and the islands.

Abe, who has not met Xi except to shake hands since taking office in December 2012, has been calling for a one-on-one meeting at the Nov. 10-11 Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit.

China has sought assurances that Abe would not repeat his December 2013 visit to Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine for the war dead, seen in Beijing as a symbol of Japan's past militarism. Such a promise would be hard for Abe to make, however, and the Japanese leader said last Friday that the agreement did not cover specific issues such as his shrine visits.

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Beijing has also demanded that Japan acknowledge the existence of a formal territorial dispute over the tiny islands in the sea between the two nations, which are controlled by Japan but also claimed by China. Friday's agreement appeared to be a diplomatic compromise on that issue, allowing the meeting to go ahead.