BEIJING (AP) — A senior envoy handed China’s leader a letter from Japan’s prime minister Friday in the countries’ highest-level contact since tensions spiked in September over an island dispute, but the meeting yielded little beyond commitments to talk again.
The contents of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s letter to Chinese leader Xi Jingping were not made public, but the meeting in Beijing was cordial and appeared to lessen some of the intensity of the dispute, which has raised concerns in recent weeks over a possible armed conflict.
Xi told the envoy, senior lawmaker Natsuo Yamaguchi, that China attached “great importance” to his visit, held in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People following four months of rising friction and the dispatch of fighter jets by both sides to skies near the disputed islands.
“Mr. Yamaguchi visits China at a period in which China-Japan relations face a special situation,” Xi said, before reporters were asked to leave the meeting.
Yamaguchi later told reporters that both men emphasized the need for discussion and to respond calmly to the present situation. He said they also discussed another high-level meeting in preparation for a possible summit between Xi and Abe, but gave no indication when that might happen.
Yamaguchi leads New Komeito, the junior party in Abe’s ruling coalition, but is not a member of the government. He arrived on Tuesday and met earlier with lower-ranking officials including Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and the head of the ruling Communist Party’s international department.
Tensions soared after Japan’s government bought the uninhabited islands, known in Chinese as Diaoyu and Japanese as Senkaku, from their private Japanese owners in September.
Both sides have since called for dialogue to avoid an armed confrontation, although Japan has rejected China’s demand that it acknowledge a sovereignty dispute, with Tokyo arguing that it is clear the islands belong to Japan.
The islands are surrounded by rich fishing grounds and a potential wealth of gas, oil and other undersea resources. For Chinese, the dispute has also reawakened bitter memories of Japan’s conquest of Chinese territory beginning in 1895 and its brutal World War II occupation.
Placed under U.S. control after World War II, the islands were returned to Japan in 1972, although Beijing says they have been Chinese territory for centuries. Taiwan also claims the islands.
Japan’s nationalization of the islands sparked violent anti-Japanese rioting in China and prompted Beijing to dispatch marine surveillance ships to them on a regular basis to confront Japanese coast guard cutters assigned to protect the area.
Trade and tourism between the countries have dropped off sharply and almost all bilateral meetings were canceled.
Earlier this month, both sides scrambled fighter jets to trail each other’s planes — underscoring the potential for accidents or miscalculations sparking a clash that could draw in Japan’s treaty partner the United States.
In a commentary issued as Friday’s meeting was taking place, China’s official Xinhua News Agency said Japan had sparked the crisis and must take the first steps in restoring trust. While acknowledging Japan’s desire for talks, it said progress in ties would depend on tangible actions.
“On the one hand, the Japanese government stressed the importance of its relationship with China. On the other, it still stubbornly sticks to its wrong stance on the Diaoyu Islands issue,” Xinhua said.
On Thursday, Japanese ships prevented activists from Taiwan from landing on the disputed islands.
Far away from the disputed area, Japan on Thursday detained a Chinese fishing boat and eight crew members for illegal fishing off Nagasaki prefecture.