Tokyo seeking to improve E. Asian ties

Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida has stressed the importance of continuing dialogue in improving ties between his country and its East Asian neighbours.

He made the point after a flurry of meetings in Myanmar's capital Naypyitaw over the weekend with his Chinese and South Korean counterparts on the fringe of a regional security forum.

Tokyo's relations with Beijing and Seoul are at their lowest in decades due to territorial disputes and wartime historical issues.

The annual ASEAN forum, hosted this year by Myanmar, provided a rare opportunity for the top diplomats of the three nations to get together.

Mr Kishida's meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was the first between foreign ministers of the two countries since September 2012, when Tokyo's nationalisation of the Senkaku islands - which China calls Diaoyu and also claims - and the first such meeting since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe returned to power in December 2012.

Mr Kishida told reporters after the meeting that the two sides spoke "at length" on how to mend ties. "I want to take this meeting as the start of efforts to improve bilateral relations," he said.

Mr Wang dubbed the meeting an "a basic exchange of views" and an "informal contact arranged at the request of the Japanese side". He told Japanese broadcaster NHK: "If Japan hopes to improve ties with China, it must show by actual behaviour."

Regarding Mr Abe's hope for a summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the Apec leaders' meeting in November that Beijing will host, Mr Wang said: "I think it's still too early yet to talk about it."

A Chinese official said Mr Wang had asked the Japanese side to "remove political obstacles".

In talks with former premier Yasuo Fukuda last month in Beijing, Mr Xi expressed readiness for better ties with Japan.

But while Mr Abe wants no pre-conditions, the Chinese insist that he acknowledge the territorial dispute and stay away from the Yasukuni war shrine, seen by the Chinese and Koreans as a symbol of Japan's past militarism.

Mr Kishida also met South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung Se, the first such meeting between the two sides in 11 months.

But although both men smiled and shook hands, the South Korean minister set the tone of the meeting by proclaiming at the outset that "war issues had greatly damaged bilateral ties".

Ties between the two countries have chilled over Mr Abe's Yasukuni visit last year and his bid to review a landmark government apology for forcing Asian women, many of them South Korean, to be wartime sexual slaves.

Mr Kishida told reporters after the meeting that while "difficult problems" existed between the two countries, they agreed on the need to continue to cultivate "mutual understanding".

Mr Kishida also had an informal "exchange of words" with North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Su Yong during an intermission of the 27-member regional forum.

It was the highest-level contact between the two sides since they agreed in March to resume inter-governmental talks on Pyongyang's past abduction of Japanese nationals.

Mr Kishida is believed to have urged Pyongyang to conduct a thorough probe into the abduction issue and to refrain from conducting further missile launches.

This article was first published on August 12, 2014.
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