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China and Japan in landmark talks to ease tensions

Kim Kyung-Hoon, AFP | China's Xi Jinping (right) shakes hands with Japan's PM Shinzo Abe on the sidelines of the APEC summit in Beijing on November 10, 2014.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (left) and Chinese President Xi Jinping held formal talks on Monday in what many hailed as a breakthrough in efforts to improve the strained relations between the two economic powerhouses.

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The brief summit, held on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting, is the first meeting between the two leaders since they took office.

The détente started with an awkward handshake in front of the flashing cameras of the world’s press, with a unsmiling Xi greeting a stiff Abe in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People.

China and Japan have rowed bitterly over the past two years on the disputed islands in the East China Sea, the legacy of Japan’s wartime occupation of China, and regional rivalry.

The meeting was the product of months of backroom negotiations to open the door to dialogue.

Abe and Xi agreed to start work on maritime crisis management, to prevent clashes at a time when patrol ships and fighter jets from both countries shadow each other regularly near the disputed islands in the East China Sea that are controlled by Japan, but also claimed by Beijing.

Economy tops agenda

Experts have said both sides had agreed the deep freeze in diplomatic relations was harming vital economic relations as well as threatening an unintended military clash that could drag in the United States.

To underscore the importance of the talks, Japan’s direct investment into China fell more than 40 percent during the first nine months of the year.

FRANCE 24’s Shannon Van Sant said the meeting came at a time of great change under Xi and amid concerns over a potential economic slowdown.

“He has launched a corruption crackdown, a huge, intense crackdown on dissent, and he’s trying to reform and transform the Chinese economy,” Van Sant said.

“[Xi] says the economy is right on track and that Beijing is resolutely committed to reform. Privately, Chinese officials say they believe China’s economy is quite fragile and they’re trying to implement every reform that they can to prevent a sharp slowdown,” she added.

Shrines and islands

However, rebuilding trust between the two sides will not be easy.

China has sought assurances that Abe will not repeat his controversial December 2013 visit to Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine for war dead, which includes those convicted as war criminals by an Allied tribunal.

Such a promise would be hard for Abe to make, however, and the Japanese leader said last Friday that last week’s agreement did not cover specific issues such as his shrine visits.

Japanese Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunubo Kato said there was no direct mention of the disputed isles or the Yasukuni shrine at the talks.

Abe has previously said that there had been no change in Japan’s stance on the islands.

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS)

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