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Japan and China agreed to maintain a status quo on the Senkaku Islands and avoid any discussion over their respective sovereignty claims, the late Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki was quoted as saying in a 1982 conversation with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, according to British government files released this week.

The comment was reportedly made during a private conversation on Sept. 20 of that year.

According to the record, Suzuki offered advice to Thatcher on how she should handle the Chinese in negotiations over Hong Kong, then a British territory.

The document, prepared by Thatcher’s private secretary, notes that “His (Suzuki’s) advice to the prime minister was to deal directly with (Chinese leader) Deng Xiaoping on the matter, with as few other people present as possible.

“This advice was based on his experience of dealing with the disputed territory of the Senkaku Islands on which, when dealing directly with Deng, he had easily reached agreement that the two governments should cooperate on the basis of their major common interest and leave aside the differences of detail: in consequence it had been agreed that, without raising the matter concretely, the status quo should be maintained, so that the issue was effectively shelved.

“The prime minister welcomed Mr. Suzuki’s advice on the method to deal with Deng, but commented that in the case of Hong Kong it would not be sufficient to shelve the issue if the confidence of investors in Hong Kong was to be maintained.”

Also attending the meeting was Foreign Minister Yoshio Sakurauchi and Chief Cabinet Secretary Kiichi Miyazawa, a future prime minister.

In May 1979, as a Lower House politician, Suzuki met Deng in China. This is thought to be the meeting referred to in his discussions with Thatcher.

The Japanese Foreign Ministry’s website states: “Japan has consistently maintained that there has never been any agreement with China to ‘shelve’ issues regarding the Senkaku Islands. This is made clear by published diplomatic records.

“The assertion that such an agreement exists directly contradicts China’s own actions to change the status quo through force or coercion.”

To bolster its sovereignty claim, Tokyo maintains there is no territorial dispute over the Senkakus.

However, over the years there have been several reports suggesting that both Japan and China were keen to leave the issue on ice and instead focus on building diplomatic and trade ties.

In January 1895, Tokyo incorporated the islands into Japanese territory by lawful means after, according to the Foreign Ministry, “having carefully ascertained that there had been no trace of control over the Senkaku Islands by another state prior to that period.”

China and Taiwan both claim to have owned the islets long before the Japanese took administrative control over them.

The islands continue to be a source of tension between Japan and China, which calls them Diaoyu.

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