Chinese, Japanese hold highest-level meeting since dispute broke out over islands

By Scott Mcdonald, AP
Monday, October 4, 2010

Chinese, Japanese leaders meet in Europe amid spat

BEIJING — The Chinese and Japanese prime ministers held an impromptu meeting in a hallway at a conference in Europe, in the highest-level contact between the countries since a bitter territorial dispute erupted a month ago, both governments confirmed Tuesday.

Relations between the Asian neighbors — the world’s second- and third-biggest economies — have been strained since a Chinese fishing boat collided with Japanese patrol vessels in early September near islands in the East China Sea claimed by both countries and Taiwan.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan agreed to improve their ties when they met briefly Monday in Brussels, where both were attending the Asia-Europe Meeting.

“Both parties agreed to strengthen non-governmental exchanges and communications between the governments, and to hold high-level Chinese-Japanese talks at the appropriate time,” said a statement posted on the website of the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

Despite the continuing thaw, both sides remained firm on the territorial dispute: The statement said Wen reiterated that the uninhabited islands — called Diaoyu by China and Senkaku by Japan — belong to China, while according to Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara, Kan said they were Japanese territory.

Kan told Wen that the two neighbors have an important, mutually beneficial relationship, and called for holding high-level talks, Maehara said.

Kan’s office in Tokyo confirmed the two met for about 25 minutes. Kan was returning to Japan on Tuesday after skipping the second day of the summit. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku said the two met sitting on chairs in a hallway. The meeting was not on any public schedule.

“Improving relations is good for Asia, for Japan and China, and especially for the global economy,” Sengoku told a news conference in Tokyo.

Speaking to reporters in Brussels, Kan said he and Wen agreed “on the need to return to that starting point and move forward from there,” according to public broadcaster NHK.

The collision and Japan’s detention of the fishing boat captain plunged relations to their lowest level in five years, although last week ties appeared to be mending.

In Tokyo on Tuesday, Maehara, the foreign minister, reiterated Tokyo’s claim of sovereignty over the islands and called on Beijing to meet and discuss ways the countries could avoid similar spats in the future.

“There is no territorial dispute in the East China Sea,” he said at a news conference. “But I do understand the importance of Japanese-Chinese relations, and if on both sides we can put our heads together, we can find ways to prevent such unfortunate incidents from happening again in the future.

“Our window for negotiation is always open,” Maehara said, pledging to work to restore ties with China.

The crash stirred up nationalism in both countries. Beijing suspended ministerial-level talks with Tokyo and postponed talks on jointly developing undersea gas fields. Japan released the captain, but Beijing shocked Tokyo by demanding an apology.

A thaw began last week when Beijing released three of four Japanese detained for questioning after allegedly entering a restricted military zone in northern China. Tokyo is pressing China to release the fourth man, who remains under house arrest and is being investigated on suspicion of illegally videotaping military targets.

Beijing also apparently lifted a de facto export ban on rare earth materials needed in Japan for advanced manufacturing, but Japan’s economic ministry said that it could not yet say whether shipments had resumed.

According to a survey of Japanese companies conducted last week by the ministry and released Tuesday, all 31 companies involved in such trade that responded to the survey said disruptions of the shipments increased since Sept. 21. They said exports were effectively blocked at numerous Chinese ports because of abnormal amounts of paperwork and increased inspections.

“The government strongly wants this to be corrected,” said Economic Minister Akihiro Ohata.

The meeting in Brussels may boost bilateral relations before the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Yokohama on Nov. 13-14, which Chinese President Hu Jintao will attend.

Associated Press writers Tomoko A. Hosaka, Malcolm Foster and Jay Alabaster in Tokyo contributed to this report.

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