US welcomes Xi-Abe meeting as chance to 'reduce tensions'

US welcomes Xi-Abe meeting as chance to 'reduce tensions'
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (L) shakes hands with China's President Xi Jinping as he arrives for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders meeting at Yanqi Lake, north of Beijing.

BEIJING - The United States on Tuesday welcomed the meeting in Beijing between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as a chance to lower their simmering tensions, a White House official said.

"We welcome the meeting yesterday between President Xi and PM Abe, it's an opportunity to reduce the tensions between the two countries," deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes told reporters.

The two men on Monday held their first face-to-face meeting since both came to power, following two years of animosity over a maritime territorial dispute that some observers have warned was leaning perilously close to military conflict.

The half-hour meeting took place Monday in Beijing, where China is hosting the annual summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum.

Afterwards, Abe called it the "first step" on the road to improving badly strained relations and said he asked Xi to establish a hotline to help avoid sea confrontations.

"It was the first step for improving relations by returning to the starting point of mutually beneficial relations based on common strategic interests," Abe told reporters.

But footage of the two men's meeting showed them shaking hands with grim expressions.

The summit was the first in three years between Chinese and Japanese leaders.

Relations plunged in 2012 when Tokyo nationalised part of the Senkaku islands, an uninhabited chain in the East China Sea.

China, which claims the islands under the name Diaoyus, reacted with fury, accusing Japan of upsetting a delicate equilibrium that had held for decades. Japan has refused even to acknowledge the existence of competing claims.

The way was paved for the meeting by a framework agreement announcement on Friday in which each side pledged efforts to prevent he situation spinning out of control.

Their statements on the issue, however, have been finely worded, allowing both to spin the developments as a victory on their own terms.

The long-festering territorial row comes on the back lingering Chinese distrust over Japan's brutal World War II invasion of China.

The islands have become the scene of regular confrontations between paramilitary vessels as both countries pressed their ownership amid rising nationalist sentiment.

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