Japan, China ministers hold 1st talks since ties frayed over islet

Japanese and Chinese trade ministers on Saturday held talks for the first time in two years and agreed to strengthen economic cooperation, despite lingering political tensions between the two countries stemming from territorial and historical issues.

There had been no talks in China between any ministers of the two countries since relations deteriorated severely after Japan's purchase in September 2012 of most of the Senkaku Islands from a private owner.

The meeting took place between Japanese trade minister Toshimitsu Motegi and his Chinese counterpart Gao Hucheng on the sidelines of a two-day meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Qingdao.

Motegi told reporters that the talks, which lasted about 20 minutes, were held in a "very good atmosphere."

The meeting was arranged unexpectedly at a time when China, this year's chair of the APEC forum, has started showing a slight shift in its approach toward Japan in the absence of almost no high-level government-to-government dialogue for several years between the two countries.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping have yet to hold official talks since they each took office more than a year ago.

But China has recently become more positive about promoting exchanges between lawmakers, local government officials and business organizations, while continuing to criticize Japan's control of the Senkakus in the East China Sea and Abe's views regarding wartime history.

Sino-Japan relations were further aggravated by Abe's visit last December to the war-related Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo.

Still, a group led by the vice president of Abe's ruling party earlier this month held talks in Beijing with Zhang Dejiang, the third-highest ranking member of the Communist Party of China.

At that time, the party vice president, Masahiko Komura, relayed Abe's hope to hold an official meeting with Xi when a summit of the 21-member APEC forum is held in November in the Chinese capital.

Motegi said Gao "touched on a territorial dispute" over the uninhabited islands during the meeting.

Japan's long-held position is the Senkakus, which China claims and calls Diaoyu, are an inherent part of its territory and that there is no territorial dispute to be settled.

China's Commerce Ministry said in a statement that Gao told Motegi that Japan is responsible for the current difficult situation, but Beijing is willing to boost bilateral trade and business activities.

The Chinese ministry said the two sides also agreed on the need to enhance cooperation in the fields of energy conservation and environmental protection.

Gao called on Japan to improve the investment environment for China, according to Motegi, who said in response to the request that "Japan is always open for dialogue and investment."

For his part, Motegi asked Gao to make sure that Japanese companies can operate safely in China.

In that context, Motegi said he expressed concern over a Shanghai court's seizure last month of an iron-ore carrier owned by a Japanese major shipping company, and a series of lawsuits filed recently by Chinese citizens against Japanese firms seeking compensation for forced labor during World War II.

Since Abe's last visit to Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japanese leaders convicted as war criminals by an Allied tribunal along with millions of war dead, Motegi was the first Japanese minister to visit China.

The last meeting between trade ministers of the two countries was in May 2012, according to a Japanese official.