• The Associated Press

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Japanese and Chinese officials will meet in Beijing next week in an effort to defuse a territorial dispute over natural gas deposits in the East China Sea, officials said Thursday.

The meeting planned for next Monday follows a series of terse exchanges between Tokyo and Beijing over the fields, which both energy-hungry countries are exploring.

Yu Kameoka, a spokesman for Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, would only say that the talks would center on gas development. He did not elaborate.

Tokyo suspects that China is exploring gas fields near Okinawa that could stretch into Japanese territorial waters, and has vowed to lodge an official protest to stop these activities.

China has rebuffed a Japanese request for more information on its exploration, but has insisted that its activities are close enough to the Chinese coast to be of no concern to Japan.

Beijing has also criticized a Japanese proposal that a line be drawn separating the two countries’ exclusive economic zones in the disputed area.

China is working on an undersea pipeline northwest of the island of Okinawa, and Japan recently began prospecting nearby, prompting protests from Beijing.

The U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea allows coastal countries an economic zone extending 200 nautical miles (370 km) from their shores.

But Beijing and Tokyo, both of which signed the convention in 1996, have not agreed where their sea border lies. The United Nations says it will decide on global offshore territorial claims by May 2009.

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