February 28, 2009 / 5:39 PM / 10 years ago

Japan and China seek agreement beyond islands row

BEIJING (Reuters) - China and Japan sought to temper a row over disputed islands in the East China Sea when their foreign ministers met in Beijing on Saturday to seek common ground on North Korea and the global economy.

Japanese Foreign Minister Hirofumi Nakasone and his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi agreed that the long-running territorial dispute should not overshadow broader ties, Nakasone’s press secretary, Kazuo Kodama, said.

Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso said this week that the small islands, claimed as the Senkaku by Japan and the Diaoyu by China, were his country’s and therefore covered by a security alliance with the United States.

China protested, saying the islands had been part of Chinese territory since ancient times.

But Nakasone and Yang “shared the view that it is only natural for neighbors to have problems from time to time,” Kodama told reporters.

“The fact that the two sides differ ... should not undermine the overall relationship between the two countries,” he added, speaking in English.

Yang urged “Japan to act with discretion in word and deed over the Diaoyu Islands issue,” the official Chinese Xinhua news agency reported.

But with Japan and China, the world’s second and third biggest economies, seeking to surmount the global slump and to handle regional tensions over North Korea, both sides appeared keen to stress cooperation rather than confrontation.

Kodama said the two governments agreed to seek “closer coordination and cooperation” in economic policy and positions ahead of a G20 summit in London in April.

North Korea is believed to be preparing for a long-range missile launch, seen as a move to put pressure on the new U.S. administration to review it’s policies toward Pyongyang.

Beijing is usually reluctant to publicly criticize the North, a long-standing Communist partner.

The two ministers agreed not to reveal much of their talks on the North, said Kodama, adding: “Diplomatic activities are progressing.”

North Korea stunned the region when it fired a missile over Japan in 1998, saying it had launched a satellite.

The two sides also discussed arrangements for a second round of a high-level economic policy dialogue and for a proposed visit by the Japanese prime minister, whose dim electoral prospects may see him lose office before he can make the trip.

Sino-Japanese relations have long been strained by disputes over history, territory and potential oil and gas reserves under nearby seas. But over recent years the two sides have overcome the hostility that impeded top-level visits.

Nakasone is to meet Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao on Sunday.

Additional reporting by Ralph Jennings in TAIPEI and Lucy Hornby and Benjamin Kang Lim in BEIJING; Editing by Janet Lawrence

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