Japan envoy meets Chinese leader amid islands dispute

Natsuo Yamaguchi (L) and Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Beijing (25 Jan 2013) Image copyright AFP
Image caption Mr Yamaguchi (L) said both sides had agreed co-operation was important

An envoy for Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has met China's leader Xi Jinping in Beijing, amid a growing territorial dispute.

Natsuo Yamaguchi, head of the junior party in Japan's ruling coalition, handed Mr Xi a letter from Mr Abe - its contents have not been disclosed.

Mr Yamaguchi said the two had agreed it was important to maintain a dialogue.

Mr Xi urged Japan to "work hard with China" to resolve the issue, a Chinese foreign ministry statement said.

As head of the New Komeito party, Natsuo Yamaguchi is the most senior politician to visit China since ties worsened last year.

Both countries claim sovereignty over a chain of islands in the East China Sea, called Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese.

The islands, which are controlled by Japan, lie south of Okinawa and north of Taiwan.

'Great importance'

After his meeting, Mr Yamaguchi told reporters that Japan "wishes to pursue ties with China while looking at the big picture".

"It is important that both sides make efforts through political dialogue so that a summit meeting between Japanese and Chinese leaders can take place - this is the suggestion that I made," he said.

"In response, Xi Jinping said there was a need for high-level dialogue and that he would consider it seriously."

Mr Xi, meanwhile, speaking before the talks, said the visit came "at a period in which Sino-Japanese relations face a special situation" and that China attached "great importance" to it.

"The Japanese side ought to face up to history and facts, take practical steps and work hard with China to find an effective way to appropriately resolve and manage the issue via dialogue and consultations," a foreign ministry statement later quoted him as saying.

The dispute over ownership of the islands has been rumbling for years, but it reignited in 2012 when the Japanese government purchased three of the islands from their private Japanese owner.

The move triggered diplomatic protests from Beijing and Taipei, and sparked small public protests in China, affecting some Japanese businesses operating in the country.

Chinese government ships have since sailed many times through what Japan says are its territorial waters around the islands. Late last year, a Chinese government plane also flew over the islands in what Japan called a violation of its airspace.

In response, Tokyo has moved to increase military spending for the first time in a decade and Mr Abe recently embarked on a diplomatic offensive in South East Asia, where several nations are also embroiled in maritime disputes with China.

The tensions between the two Asian giants have raised concern, with the US calling for calm and restraint.

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