Tokyo and Jakarta, Reuters—Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe held talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of a summit in Indonesia on Wednesday, the latest sign of a thaw in relations between the Asian rivals.
The meeting took place despite an awkward diplomatic backdrop.
Speaking at the conference earlier, Abe warned powerful nations against imposing on the weak, an implicit reference to China. He also made an allusion to Tokyo’s remorse in the past over World War Two without issuing a fresh apology.
Also on Wednesday, lawmakers from Abe’s ruling party and the opposition visited a Japanese war shrine in Tokyo that is seen in China as a symbol of Tokyo’s past militarism.
But Xi and Abe held talks in the early evening in a meeting room at the Jakarta Convention Centre, the venue of the Asian–African summit. “It is ongoing,” a Japanese foreign ministry spokesman said after the talks started.
Abe and Xi left the room about half an hour later.
Tensions between Asia’s two biggest economies have flared in recent years due to feuds over wartime history as well as territorial rows and regional rivalry. Memories of Japan’s past military aggression run deep in China, and Beijing has repeatedly urged Japan to face up to history.
But the meeting on Wednesday could promote a cautious rapprochement that began when Abe and Xi met at a summit in Beijing late last year.
“The country [China] is shifting to a policy of stressing that it hopes for stable relations with its neighbors,” said Hiroko Maeda, a research fellow at the PHP Institute in Tokyo.
Earlier in the day, Abe said: “We should never allow to go unchecked the use of force by the mightier to twist the weaker around.
“The wisdom of our forefathers in Bandung was that the rule of law should protect the dignity of sovereign nations, be they large or small,” he said at the summit marking the 60th anniversary of the Bandung Conference, a meeting of Asian and African leaders opposed to colonialism.
Xi had spoken at the conference earlier but did not make any reference to relations with Japan.
China is locked in territorial rows with several smaller countries in the South China Sea while Japan has a separate feud over islets in the East China Sea.
Abe often warns against the use of force to change the status quo and says the rule of law should prevail—both seen as implicit criticism of China’s assertiveness.
Abe’s stance on Japan’s wartime past is especially sensitive this year, when he plans to issue a statement marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War Two.
He has said that while he will uphold past apologies including a 1995 landmark statement by then-premier Tomiichi Murayama, he wants to issue forward-looking remarks in his own words, sparking concern he wants to water down past apologies.
Abe said in his Jakarta speech that Japan had, “with feelings of deep remorse over the past war,” pledged to adhere to principles affirmed at the first Bandung Conference, including refraining from the use of force and settling international disputes by peaceful means.
In Beijing, China’s foreign ministry protested against the visit to the Yasukuni shrine by the Japanese lawmakers.
“In this sensitive year, Japanese politicians should adhere to correct historical views and do more to promote reconciliation and mutual trust with Asian neighbors, and not the opposite,” said China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said in Beijing.
Abe’s speech in Jakarta will be followed by a speech to the US Congress next week and a statement in August marking the anniversary of the end of World War Two.