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 drew anger from South Korea.
However, there were 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 current 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 that he will not repeat a formal apology in the 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, Abe 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.
The South Korean foreign ministry expressed "deep regret" at Abe's decision to drop the two expressions that Koizumi used.
"We hope that the Japanese government will not miss remaining opportunities," it said in a statement.
As well as the statement later this year, attention will also 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.
In the Jakarta speech, 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, while China is locked in territorial disputes with several countries in the South China Sea.
Abe's Jakarta speech was just his latest move that risks inflaming regional tensions - it came after he sent an offering this week 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."