BEIJING (Reuters) - China and Japan made no major breakthroughs in resolving a row over natural resources in the East China Sea on Friday, but a visit by Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda signalled a new warmth in bilateral relations.
Eleven rounds of talks have failed to settle a long-running dispute between the two Asian giants over how to exploit natural gas in the East China Sea and where the dividing line between their exclusive economic zones in the area should lie.
Japan is concerned that China, which is piping gas from an area close to what Tokyo sees as its own economic zone, could be siphoning resources from geological structures that stretch into the Japanese zone.
“Talks will continue and we want to resolve the issue as soon as possible,” Fukuda told a joint news conference after a two-and-a-half-hour meeting with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao.
Both Fukuda and Wen said talks on the gas field dispute made “certain progress” but did not elaborate.
But a Japanese diplomat said the two had agreed to aim to resolve the issue by the time President Hu Jintao visits Japan next spring.
“The differences in each others’ position have narrowed considerably,” the diplomat said.
Wen said the two countries had the will to develop and turn the East China Sea into an “ocean of peace and friendship”.
Fukuda also joined a growing chorus of opposition to Taiwan’s contentious plan to hold a referendum on U.N. membership, a comment intended to placate China.
“If it leads to a unilateral change of the (political) status quo (between China and Taiwan), we cannot support it,” Fukuda said. “We do not desire tensions stemming from Taiwan’s referendum.”
Beijing insists the rest of the world treat self-ruled Taiwan as a province of China, and has long threatened to attack the island if it formally declares statehood. It would see passage of the referendum as tantamount to a declaration of independence.
In a light moment, Fukuda said he had suggested to Wen that they meet for a game of catch but said he had yet to hear back from his host. Wen, who pitched in a baseball game during a visit to Japan in April, replied that he was ready to play any time.
Fukuda was holding separate talks with parliament chief Wu Bangguo and Hu later on Friday. They were to focus on economic, environmental and energy cooperation, featuring transfers of Japan’s waste-cutting and energy-saving technology to China, which is trying to upgrade its heavily polluting industrial base.
Ties between the two neighbours have warmed in the past year after a long chill during the 2001-2006 term of Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi. He paid repeated visits to Tokyo’s Yasukuni war shrine, which critics see as a symbol of Japan’s past militarism.
The 71-year-old Fukuda, whose father as prime minister in 1978 clinched a milestone peace treaty with Beijing, has vowed not to visit Yasukuni while in office.
In a speech to students at Peking University, Fukuda repeated his sentiment that countries must have “the courage and wisdom to face the past squarely”.
Japan remains Asia’s biggest economic power, with a $4.34 trillion (2.17 trillion pound) economy in 2006, against China’s $2.67 trillion, World Bank data show. Tokyo has long sought to boost its diplomatic clout commensurate with its economic might.
Japan’s trade with China, including Hong Kong, surpassed that with the United States for three consecutive years from 2004. It stood at $249.3 billion in 2006, against $213.7 billion for Japan-U.S. trade.
Despite warming ties, the two are suspicious of each other’s military ambitions. Japan has urged Beijing to be more transparent about its soaring defence outlays.
Writing by Benjamin Kang Lim; Editing by John Chalmers