• Kyodo

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Trade minister Toshimitsu Motegi and his Chinese counterpart on Saturday held talks for the first time in two years and agreed to strengthen economic cooperation, despite bilateral disputes over territorial and historical issues.

There had been no talks in China between ministers from the two countries since relations went into a tailspin after Japan’s purchase in September 2012 of most of the Senkaku Islands from a private owner. While Japan controls the uninhabited islets, China and Taiwan also claim them as Diaoyu and Tiaoyutai, respectively.

The meeting between Motegi and Chinese trade minister Gao Hucheng took place on the sidelines of a two-day meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Qingdao, China.

Motegi told reporters that the talks, which lasted about 20 minutes, were held in a “very good atmosphere.”

The unexpected meeting comes at a time when Beijing, the chair of this year’s APEC forum, has begun showing a slight shift in its approach to Tokyo following the absence of almost no high-level dialogue for several years.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping have yet to hold official talks since each took office more than a year ago.

But China — despite maintaining its critical stance on the Senkakus and Abe’s views on wartime history — has recently become more proactive about promoting exchanges between lawmakers, local officials and business organizations.

Sino-Japan relations were further aggravated by Abe’s December visit to Tokyo’s war-linked Yasukuni Shrine.

Still, a group led by the vice president of Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party held talks in Beijing earlier this month with Zhang Dejiang, the third-highest-ranking member of the Communist Party.

During those talks, LDP Vice President Masahiko Komura relayed Abe’s hopes of holding an official meeting with Xi during a November summit of the 21-member APEC forum in the Chinese capital.

Motegi said Gao “touched on a territorial dispute” over the Senkakus during the meeting. Japan’s long-held position is that the Senkakus are an inherent part of its territory and that no dispute exists.

China’s Commerce Ministry said in a statement that Gao told Motegi that Japan is to blame for the current state of affairs, but that Beijing is willing to boost bilateral trade and business activities.

The ministry said the two sides also agreed on the need to enhance cooperation in the fields of energy conservation and environmental protection.

Gao called on Japan to improve the investment environment for China, according to Motegi, who said in response that “Japan is always open for dialogue and investment.”

Motegi also asked Gao to ensure that Japanese firms can operate safely in China. In that context, Motegi said he expressed concern over a Shanghai court’s seizure last month of an iron-ore ship owned by a major Japanese shipping firm, and lawsuits filed recently by Chinese citizens against Japanese firms seeking redress for forced labor during the war.

Motegi was the first Cabinet minister to visit China since Abe’s visit to Yasukuni, which honors the nation’s war dead and convicted Class-A war criminals.

The last meeting between trade ministers of the two countries was in May 2012, a Japanese official said.

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