BEIJING – Prime Minister Shinzo Abe held his long-sought meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Monday, marking a breakthrough in efforts to improve relations strained by historical and territorial disagreements.
“By going back to the original point of a strategic relationship of mutual benefit, the first step was taken in improving relations,” Abe told reporters in Beijing shortly after their first meeting since either leader took office.
On the standoff over the sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands, which has heightened regional security concerns, Abe said he proposed the early establishment of a crisis management mechanism to avoid accidents or miscalculations that could precipitate a wider conflict.
Abe said senior officials from the two countries will start working on the mechanism soon.
The meeting, which lasted about 25 minutes, took place in the Great Hall of the People hours before a gathering of Asia-Pacific leaders hosted by Xi.
Earlier, the two men shook hands in front of cameras in a red-carpeted hallway before heading into a meeting room. Abe could be seen briefly saying something to Xi, who gave no response and looked toward the cameras for the remainder of the handshake.
Experts had said both sides agree that the deep freeze in diplomatic ties is harming vital economic relations as well as threatening an unintended military clash that could ensnare the United States. Japan’s direct investment in China fell more than 40 percent during the first nine months of this year.
Gerry Curtis, a Columbia University professor, said 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.
Nevertheless, rebuilding trust between the longtime rivals will not be easy.
Xi told Abe that “historical issues concern the feelings of more than 1.3 billion Chinese people” and urged Abe “to continue the path of peaceful development and adopt a prudent military security policy,” China’s Foreign Ministry said.
Abe promised that Japan will continue to be a “peaceful country” and said his administration upholds the 1995 statement made by Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama that offered an apology over the damage and suffering Japan inflicted on its Asian neighbors through its colonial rule and wartime aggression.
Xi said “stable and healthy growth” in relations between the world’s second- and third-largest economies “serves the fundamental interests of the two peoples and meets the hope of the international community,” according to China’s Foreign Ministry.
The last time there was a formal meeting between a Japanese prime minister and a Chinese president was in December 2011.
The Abe-Xi meeting came after Japan and China agreed last Friday to work on improving relations and jointly released a statement listing four basic points of consensus reached in the negotiations leading up to the summit.
Abe had consistently insisted that a meeting with Xi needed to be held — without any conditions — especially given the grave political difficulties the two powerful Asian nations face.
But Abe’s visit in late 2013 to Yasukuni Shrine, widely seen as a symbol of Japan’s wartime aggression, put already cool bilateral relations into a deep freeze.
Since then, for Abe to meet with Xi, China had demanded the prime minister not only acknowledge that the sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands is in dispute, but also promise not to again visit Yasukuni, which honors convicted Class-A war criminals along with millions of soldiers who died in battle.
The vaguely worded Japan-China statement says both sides have recognized their “different views” over the emergence of tensions in recent years in the East China Sea, where the Senkakus are located.
While Japanese officials said after the statement was issued that Tokyo’s stance that no territorial dispute exists over the Senkakus is unchanged, the document — the wording of which is not identical in each version — concedes they have different positions on the issue.
The statement also says the two countries, in the spirit of squarely facing history and advancing toward the future, share “some” recognition on overcoming political difficulties affecting their present relations.
There is no mention of Yasukuni, but some people, particularly in China, suggest what is written in the document implies that Abe will not visit the shrine.
A day after the four-point agreement, the two nations’ foreign ministers held formal talks, their first since September 2012, and agreed to work toward the early resumption of various high-level discussions