China’s new leader Xi Jinping on Friday called on China and Japan to address their disputes over East China Sea islands “in a timely manner”, in an indication that both governments were looking to calm tensions that have, in recent weeks, strained relations between the two countries.
In the most significant high-level contact between both governments following the changes in leadership that brought Mr. Xi and new Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to power against the backdrop of the dispute, the Communist Party of China (CPC) General Secretary met with Natsuo Yamaguchi, who heads the New Komeito Party, here on Friday. The New Komeito is the smaller of the two parties in the coalition led by Mr. Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party, which came to power in December.
Mr. Yamaguchi is the first top leader from the new Japanese government to visit China following the tensions over the disputed Diaoyu or Senkaku islands that have strained ties in recent months, after Japan announced a plan to purchase some of the islands from their private owner. China responded angrily to the move, stepping up patrols in the waters off the disputed islands. Both countries have recently even scrambled fighters after aircraft entered the airspace above the islands to enforce their claims, sparking concerns of conflict.
Mr. Xi, who took over as the head of the CPC in November and will succeed Hu Jintao as President in March, told Mr. Yamaguchi in Friday's meeting that China’s position was “consistent and clear”.
While he called on Japan “to respect history as well as reality”, he also pushed for “joint efforts... to seek effective methods for appropriately controlling and resolving problems through dialogue and consultation”, the official Xinhua news agency reported.
In a further indication that both governments might look to take steps to tone down tensions amid a climate of rising nationalism – State media outlets in China and top People’s Liberation Army officers have in recent days made comments suggesting armed conflict was not off the table – Mr. Abe sent a letter to Mr. Xi.
Delivered by Mr. Yamaguchi, the letter called for both countries to have a “shared responsibility” for peace and requested a summit meeting between the two new leaders, the Asahi Shimbun reported.
“I will seriously consider a high-level dialogue,” the newspaper quoted Mr. Xi as saying in response to the letter at Friday’s meeting. “To do so,” he added, “arranging the proper environment is of vital importance”.
A commentary published after Friday's meeting by the official Xinhua news agency called on both countries to solve their disputes through dialogue and consultation, in a marked change in tone from recent commentaries in State media pushing a hard-line stance.
"A retrospective of the Sino-Japan relationship shows that when there is peace between the two countries, both benefit and when there is conflict, both suffer," the commentary said. "Although the ice between China and Japan is thick, it can be melted by sincere dialogue."