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Japan, China pledge warmer ties

world Updated: May 07, 2008 14:22 IST

AP
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The leaders of Japan and China called for a new era in relations at a summit Wednesday, pledging to hold annual meetings, resolve an angry dispute over maritime gas deposits and not allow their bitter history to divide them.

The carefully choreographed summit between Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda and Chinese President Hu Jintao the first visit by a Chinese president to Tokyo in a decade was aimed at bolstering ties between the Asian giants.

The two also discussed China's contentious handling of protests in Tibet. Fukuda praised Beijing for agreeing to meet with representatives of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader. Both leaders used the meeting to herald greater cooperation between Asia's most populous nation and its most powerful economy two countries which until 2006 had seen their ties fall to their lowest point since World War II.

"Our relations are at a new starting point, and we have a new chance," Hu said at a joint news conference after the summit, adding later: "Japan and China have an important responsibility to assure peace in Asia."

As a sign of that determination, the two agreed to hold annual summits, attempting to prevent the recent rift that created a 10-year gap in visits to Japan by a Chinese president. Fukuda also said the countries were on the verge of resolving a thorny dispute over the exploitation of natural gas fields in the East China Sea. China is tapping the fields, but Japan says they should be jointly developed.

"We believe a breakthrough may now be possible," Fukuda said, without giving further details. The two nations have held a series of meetings on the problem, without announcing much progress.

Fukuda also said he hoped for a successful Beijing Olympics, recalling the 1964 summer games in Tokyo that marked Japan's emergence on the world stage after its defeat in World War II. Fukuda, however, said he had not decided whether to attend the opening ceremony.

"The world is watching. We hope the Chinese government and people realize this and that people will be able to watch the games with pleasure," he said.

Protests that dogged China's international Olympic torch relay continued Wednesday as hundreds of demonstrators in Japan marched against China's policy in Tibet and thousands of riot police were mobilized to ensure Hu's safety.

In line with the friendly atmospherics, Hu and Fukuda were to use pingpong and pandas to take the edge off thornier problems. Hu said China was willing to loan a couple of pandas to Japan following the death last week of 22-year-old giant panda Ling Ling at Tokyo's largest zoo, and Fukuda thanked him.

Amid heavy security, Hu was given the full state guest treatment in Tokyo. After a ceremony at the imperial palace, he went to the summit with Fukuda, then on to a luncheon with business leaders and a meeting with the heads of Japan's main political parties.

The visit is intended to build on a recent warming in relations after years of friction over disputed borders, Japan's treatment of its wartime invasion of China, anti-Japanese protests in China, and general Japanese unease over Beijing's rapidly growing diplomatic, military and economic power.

Hu is hoping the visit will project China as a friendly, good neighbor after weeks of protests over Tibet and human rights issues that marred China's Olympic torch relay.

Ahead of his arrival, about 500 people protested in Tokyo, many carrying banners calling for a "Free Tibet." There were no reports of arrests. More protesters scuffled with police outside the French restaurant where Hu and Fukuda dined on Tuesday night.

Bilateral ties began unraveling in 1998 when then Chinese President Jiang Zemin went to Tokyo expecting but not receiving an apology for Japan's often brutal 1931-1945 occupation of much of China.

Relations after that chilled as Japan charted a more aggressive defense and foreign policy course, even as other countries in the region began to accommodate China's rising clout.

In recent years, however, Japan has benefited immensely from China's economic growth. While cautious of its rising rival's political and military ambitions, Tokyo has good reason to seek calm relations trade reached US$237 billion (euro170 billion) last year, according to Chinese statistics.

"For Japan, China has become the fastest growing export market," Hu told business leaders later in the day. "For China, Japan is the largest foreign investor. I believe there is a huge potential."

Hu and Fukuda were also to play pingpong on Thursday before Hu went off to see Yokohama, which has a large Chinatown, and the ancient city of Nara.