China and Japan emphasized on Sunday their willingness to enhance bilateral relations, as they revealed a plan to open a military hotline to ease tensions over disputed East China Sea islands.
The announcement came after top diplomats from the two countries held rare talks aimed at warming chilly ties.
Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono met his counterpart Wang Yi in Beijing on Sunday in an attempt to improve relations held back by longstanding and seemingly intractable disputes over maritime territory and Japan’s wartime legacy.
While ties between Tokyo and Beijing have shown signs of warming, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese PM Shinzo Abe have yet to meet on their own soil.
Kono’s visit to China is the first by a serving Japanese foreign minister in nearly two years.
In a statement, China’s foreign ministry said the two countries had pledged to sign an agreement “as soon as possible” to establish a military hotline to help prevent incidents in the East China Sea.
Frequent maritime patrols by both countries around disputed islets have become a potential flashpoint and a major impediment to improved relations.
“China and Japan should work together to build the East China Sea into the sea of peace, cooperation and friendship,” it said.
In remarks before the talks, Kono praised the progress towards improving ties, while calling on China to do more to curb North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
“It is important not only to discuss issues related to our two countries, but for Japan and China to stand side by side to deal with global issues,” he said.
“In particular, the North Korea issue is now an urgent issue for the whole of international society.”
Tokyo has been wooing China with official visits and business delegations, but an exchange of state visits has remained a hard sell.
Japan is hoping that things will change this year as the two countries prepare to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the signing of a Japan-China friendship treaty.
The foreign ministry statement from Beijing made no mention of an Abe-Xi meeting.
China’s Foreign Minister Wang also kept his cards close to his chest.
Relations between the two countries were at a “crucial stage”, he said, adding “there is positive progress, but many disturbances and obstacles remain”.
A longstanding dispute over islands in the East China Sea — known as the “Senkakus” in Japanese and the “Diaoyu” by the Chinese — remains a source of tension.
Tokyo’s decision to “nationalize” some of the islets in 2012 led to a major falling out and the relationship has been slow to recover.
Chinese coastguard vessels routinely travel around the disputed islands, a practice that has brought regular objections from Japan, which controls the region.
During the meetings, Kono lodged a protest over Beijing’s decision earlier this month to send a nuclear-powered submarine to the area, Kyodo News said.
Japan is also pushing to host a trilateral summit with leaders from China and South Korea to discuss a broad range of regional issues, including North Korea’s nuclear program.
The meeting, which was scheduled for last December, was postponed after the impeachment of the then-South Korean president Park Geun-Hye.
The two sides agreed the meeting should be held “as soon as possible”, China’s foreign ministry said without mentioning the venue.