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Japanese envoy in Beijing to talk about islands

Japanese envoy in Beijing to talk about islands

A Japanese envoy arrived in Beijing on Tuesday for talks aimed at cooling tensions over an island dispute that has raised fears of an armed confrontation.

Natsuo Yamaguchi made no comments upon his arrival but told reporters in Tokyo he hoped his trip would help ease months of friction over the uninhabited East China Sea islands that are controlled by Japan but claimed by China.

"It is important for us to have consultations to normalize our relationship," said Yamaguchi, a lawmaker who leads the New Komeito party, the junior partner of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

However, he said Tokyo's assertion that the islands are Japanese territory is unchanged, rejecting Chinese demands to acknowledge any dispute over their sovereignty.

Both nations have called for dialogue recently, and Chinese state broadcaster CCTV led its noon news broadcast with a live report on Yamaguchi's arrival in a sign of the importance Beijing attaches to his visit.

Yamaguchi is not a member of the government so his meetings in Beijing represent a type of quiet diplomacy that could allow for a franker exchange of views than official talks might.

Yamaguchi's schedule for his four-day visit hasn't been announced, although Chinese media reported he was to deliver a letter from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe addressed to Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

Tensions soared after Japan's government bought the uninhabited islands, known in Chinese as Diaoyu and Japanese as Senkaku, from their private owners in September. Trade and tourism between the countries have dropped off sharply and almost all bilateral meetings between their officials have been canceled.

The islands are surrounded by rich fishing grounds and a potential wealth of gas, oil and other undersea resources. For China, they also mark a strategic gateway to the Pacific Ocean and represent the deeply emotional legacy of Japan's conquest of Chinese territory beginning in 1895, as well as its brutal World War II occupation of much of the country.

Placed under U.S. control after World War II, the islands were returned to Japan in 1972, although Beijing says they have been Chinese territory for centuries. Taiwan also claims the islands.

Japan's nationalization of the islands sparked violent anti-Japanese rioting in China and prompted Beijing to dispatch marine surveillance ships to them on a regular basis to confront Japanese Coast Guard cutters assigned to protect the area.

That standoff has also moved to the skies. Earlier this month, both sides scrambled fighter jets to trail each other's planes — underscoring the potential for accidents or miscalculations sparking a clash that could draw in Japan's treaty partner the United States.

Beijing has since ratcheted down its verbal attacks on Japan and last week hosted a visit by China-friendly former Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama for informal talks on the dispute.

Updated : 2021-05-13 12:27 GMT+08:00