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Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and former top Chinese diplomat Tang Jiaxuan on Monday pledged to enhance bilateral relations amid escalating tensions over sovereignty issues in the East China Sea.

“I hope to move bilateral relations forward by expanding the positive aspects of the relationship while dealing with mutual concerns,” Kishida said at the beginning of the meeting with Tang, president of the China-Japan Friendship Association.

Tang, who came to Tokyo to attend the Beijing-Japan Forum, said he hopes that ideas from experts attending the meeting could help warm chilled ties. The private framework is to discuss strategic mutual trust, understanding and economic cooperation between China and Japan. Tang was scheduled to give the forum’s keynote speech Tuesday.

“The basic stance of the Chinese government that it values bilateral relations and strives to better them hasn’t changed,” said Tang. “Both sides have to work with a sense of responsibility and urgency.”

Tang’s visit comes as Tokyo works to lay the groundwork, including the date, for a trilateral summit with China and South Korea by the year’s end. Media reports on Monday said Japan suggested that the meeting be held in early December in Tokyo. A visit by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang would be his first to Japan.

Tang’s trip, however, was overshadowed by an incident Sunday when at least eight Chinese fighters and bombers — and possibly as many as 40 in total — flew over the Miyako Strait in Okinawa Prefecture, causing the Air Self-Defense force to scramble its jets.

Although Japan’s Defense Ministry said the planes did not enter the country’s airspace, the incident was apparently the first time that a Chinese fighter jet had flown over the strategic strait, a sign that China is continuing to aggressively assert its presence in the East China Sea.

In those waters, the two Asian rivals are involved in a dispute over the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands, which are known in China as the Diaoyu islets.

Earlier Monday, Tang expressed hopes of solving the row through dialogue.

“Our wish is to make (the East China Sea) a sea of peace,” said Tang, who wields great influence in Japan-China policy circles. “We can derive an exit strategy only through dialogue.”

The Japanese Foreign Ministry has emphasized improving relations between the two nations, but Tokyo is increasingly alarmed by Beijing’s bellicose military posture in the East China Sea. China, for its part, has been unnerved by Japan’s involvement in South China Sea issues, including a recent speech by Defense Minister Tomomi Inada, who said that Japan would boost its involvement in those waters.

To avoid a clash that could trigger a military standoff, the two nations agreed in 2012 to set up a communication mechanism. Strained bilateral ties halted the talks, but the two countries agreed to resume negotiations in 2014. Yet progress has been minimal amid China’s growing assertiveness in the East China Sea.

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