JAKARTA - Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expressed "deep remorse" Wednesday for Japan's World War II aggression at a summit attended by Asian leaders, but stopped short of repeating previous apologies in a move that risks angering Beijing and Seoul.
However there were also signs of a thaw with China, with Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping shaking hands as the summit in Indonesia got under way and a Tokyo official saying that the ground was being laid for the pair to meet on the sidelines.
A new meeting would be a significant step towards easing long-running tensions over Tokyo's wartime past and territorial disputes.
The leaders have only met once before, at a summit in November last year in China, where they shared an awkward handshake, but have never had a formal sit-down.
The speech by Abe, a strident nationalist, at the Asia-Africa Summit in Jakarta was being closely watched for clues about a statement he is due to make later this year marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.
Observers are waiting to see whether he will make direct reference to his country's "colonial rule and aggression" and express "remorse" and apologise, as previous premiers did on the 50th and 60th anniversaries.
He suggested in a TV interview this week he will not repeat a formal apology in that statement.
For China and South Korea, which suffered under the yoke of Japan's imperial ambition, Abe's language is a crucial marker of Tokyo's acceptance of guilt for its march across Asia in the 1930s and 1940s, which left millions dead.
At the start of the two-day summit Wednesday, which commemorates a key conference 60 years ago that helped emerging nations forge a common identity, he offered weaker remarks than previous Japanese leaders -- potentially a bad omen for the closely-watched statement later this year.
Referring to principles of peace laid down at the original conference, he told delegates: "And Japan, with feelings of deep remorse over the past war, made a pledge to remain a nation always adhering to those very principles throughout, no matter what the circumstances."
The weak statement is particularly notable as then Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi offered a "heartfelt apology" and referred to "colonial rule and aggression" at an Asia-Africa summit in Jakarta in 2005, echoing language in a landmark 1995 statement.
Abe also made a veiled attack at China over ongoing maritime disputes: "We should never allow to go unchecked the use of force by the mightier to twist the weaker around."
Beijing and Tokyo are at odds over the sovereignty of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea, which Japan administers and calls the Senkakus but which China claims as the Diaoyus.
China is also locked in territorial disputes in the South China Sea with several countries, and tensions are particularly high with the Philippines.
Xi, speaking prior to Abe at the gathering, made no mention of regional tensions but called for a "fair" global financial system, as Beijing increasingly wins support for its new regional development bank in the face of US opposition.
Attention will again focus on Abe's choice of words about the war when he heads to the United States this weekend on a week-long trip, during which he will address a joint session of congress.
Abe's Jakarta speech was just his latest move that risks inflaming regional tensions -- it came after he this week sent an offering to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, the supposed repository of the country's war dead including 14 infamous war criminals.
And on Wednesday, more than 100 Japanese lawmakers visited the shrine, which China and South Korea view as a symbol of Japan's unwillingness to repent for aggressive warring, drawing a swift rebuke from Seoul, which expressed "deep disappointment and regret".
But despite Abe's notable failure to offer up a full apology at the summit, there were indications of warming ties between Xi and Abe with the handshake and mounting expectations of a meeting.
Asked whether Xi and Abe would meet, Japan's chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters in Tokyo: "I hope we will have such an opportunity at some point today.
"I have received a report that they are making the final arrangements, but it hasn't been decided yet where and when to hold the meeting."