With an awkward handshake, 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.
Television footage showed Abe waiting for Xi to greet him at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, a departure from usual protocol in which the Chinese leader is on hand waiting for a guest. Xi was unsmiling and stiff as the two shook hands and he did not speak to Abe when they first met, Reuters reported.
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 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.
It lasted for 30 minutes, Agence France-Presse reported.
The meeting was held at the request of the Japanese side ahead of the 22nd Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Economic Leaders’ Meeting in the capital, the official Xinhua News Agency said.
Xi told Abe that China hopes Japan continues to follow the path of peaceful development and adopt prudent military and security policies, according to Xinhua.
Abe said Japan is determined to continue the path of peaceful development, noting that the current Japanese administration will maintain the same views held by previous governments on the history issue, the report said.
Xi urged Japan to “do more things that help enhance the mutual trust between Japan and its neighboring countries, and play a constructive role in safeguarding the region’s peace and stability”, it said.
Noting that China and Japan are close neighbors, Xi said stable and healthy development of Sino-Japanese ties is in line with fundamental interests of people in both countries as well as the common aspiration of the international community.
He said the Chinese government has always attached importance to its ties with Japan, and has advocated pushing forward Sino-Japanese ties on the basis of the four political documents reached between China and Japan and in the spirit of “taking history as a mirror and looking forward to the future”, according to the Chinese state news agency.
Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Abe said: “This is a first step toward improving bilateral relations, returning to the core of a mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests.”
He said he asked his Chinese counterpart to establish a hotline aimed at preventing clashes at sea, after frequent sparring between paramilitary vessels in the waters around disputed islands, AFP reported.
“I asked him that we implement a maritime communication mechanism, and I think we will start working on concrete steps toward it,” Abe was quoted as saying.
Experts have said both sides had agreed the deep freeze in diplomatic ties was harming vital economic relations as well as threatening an unintended military clash that could drag in the United States, Reuters said. Japan’s direct investment into China fell more than 40 percent during the first nine months of the year.
Gerry Curtis, a Columbia University professor, to the news agency that Xi’s apparent stiffness in greeting Abe was a nod to his domestic audience, where memories of Japan’s wartime occupation persist.
“Xi had to be concerned about how the meeting was covered in China,” he said. “Looking like he was meeting his best friend would probably not go down all that well.”
But Curtis also said body language aside, the meeting was an “important and positive development” toward repairing ties.
China, which has bitter memories of the Japanese occupation, has sought assurances that Abe would not repeat his December 2013 visit to Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine for the war dead. Such a promise would be hard for Abe to make, however, and the Japanese leader said last Friday that last week’s agreement did not cover specific issues such as his shrine visits.
Japan’s Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunubo Kato said there was no direct mention of the disputed isles or the Yasukuni shrine at the talks.
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, Reuters said.
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, the report said.
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