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

October 6, 2010

By Scott McDonald
Canadian Press (CP)
October 5, 2010

BEIJING, China -- 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 neighbours -- 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 neighbours 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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