BEIJING--New Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi's meeting on Jan. 25 with Chinese leader Xi Jinping highlighted the differences emerging within the ruling coalition over how to improve ties with Beijing.
Before leaving Tokyo for China, Yamaguchi touched upon the idea of leaving the resolution of the territorial dispute over the Senkaku Islands to future generations.
A number of lawmakers of the dominant Liberal Democratic Party, however, were quick to dismiss the remark, which runs counter to the official government position that no territorial dispute exists because the Senkakus are Japanese territory.
There were other signs senior Japanese government officials were distancing themselves from the diplomatic efforts between New Komeito and the Chinese Communist Party.
When asked about the meeting between Yamaguchi and Xi, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga only said that it was something that had come about in the course of Yamaguchi's visit to China.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, meanwhile, appears to be focusing on solidifying the foundation for dealing with China by visiting the United States in February to confirm the importance of strengthening the Japan-U.S. alliance. That visit will follow the one he made to three Southeast Asian nations in January.
"The prime minister feels that based on China's present response, there is no need for a meeting with the Chinese leader," an associate to Abe said.
Although Xi told Yamaguchi that preparing an environment for high-level dialogue was important, China has continued to send government ships to waters near the Senkakus, and Abe himself has repeatedly said the government would "resolutely protect" Japanese territory, territorial waters and territorial airspace.
Moreover, the Abe administration has indicated it was planning to review the 1995 statement issued in the name of then Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama expressing remorse for Japanese colonial domination before and during World War II.
In response, Xi said during his meeting with Yamaguchi that only by directly facing history would any improvement be made in the future.
For its part, China showed a willingness to work for improved bilateral ties.
Liu Jiangyong, a professor of international studies at Tsinghua University in Beijing, has harshly criticized Japan over the Senkakus dispute. However, after the meeting between Xi and Yamaguchi, Liu said, "The fact that the meeting lasted for 70 minutes is an indication of the emphasis placed on the relationship with Japan."
Before Yamaguchi's visit, former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama also visited China.
"Those visits showed the Chinese people that Japan was prepared to improve relations," Liu said.
The state-run China Central Television carried the Xi-Yamaguchi meeting as its top story.
"It was an important meeting in which General Secretary Xi laid out the direction he wanted Sino-Japanese relations to go," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said at a Jan. 25 news conference.
Hong added that there was no change in the Chinese government's stance of further developing the bilateral relationship.
At the same time, Beijing has not erased all traces of its distrust of Japan.
The New Komeito delegation was only informed of the meeting with Xi about 90 minutes before it was to start. Although the Chinese government had been preparing from the previous day for the meeting, it made no formal announcement. One reason for the delay was uncertainty among Chinese officials about the extent to which Yamaguchi was reflecting the positions of the Abe administration in making the trip to China.
Yamaguchi's comment about leaving the Senkakus issue for future generations had led some LDP lawmakers to voice their opposition to such a stance.
This mixed message led the Global Times, a daily newspaper affiliated with the People's Daily, the mouthpiece for the Chinese Communist Party, to run a front-page article saying Japan was still toying with China over the territorial issue.
While the two sides may have agreed to promote dialogue, Chinese officials have not changed their position that Japan has to make the first move to resolve the problem.
A Chinese Foreign Ministry official said, "The issue emerged because Japan placed (the Senkakus) under state control."
(This article was compiled from reports by Norihisa Hoshino and Atsushi Okudera.)
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