TOKYO (AFP) - Badly frayed ties between Japan and China are only "temporary", a Chinese former foreign minister said on Thursday, at a rare meeting between the sides and the latest baby-step towards fixing the broken relationship.
Senior public and business figures from both countries gathered in the southern Japanese city of Nagasaki, at one of the highest-level meetings since relations took a nosedive in 2012 when Japan nationalised disputed islands.
Chinese former foreign minister Tang Jiaxuan blamed Japan for the state of bilateral ties, criticising Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's visit to a war shrine and its moves over the Tokyo-controlled Senkaku islands, which Beijing claims as the Diaoyus, broadcaster NHK said. But he noted "adverse winds are blowing against bilateral relations but this difficulty is only temporary", according to the network's translation. The comment struck a rare positive note from an influential Chinese figure after two years of bitter back-biting.
Mr Tang, also a former member of China's state Council, is head of the Chinese delegation for the two-day meeting of the New Japan-China Friendship Committee for the 21st Century. His visit is the first meeting of the group since before the islands' nationalisation, and comes a month after a delegation of senior Japanese lawmakers visited China to meet high-ranking officials from the Communist Party.
Although the path remains uneven - the two sides clashed last weekend at a regional security summit - observers have noted an apparent softening of entrenched positions over recent months, including a reduction in the presence of Chinese vessels near the disputed archipelago.
Japanese delegation head Taizo Nishimuro, a former president of Toshiba, said "the biggest problem is that sentiment among people (towards the other country) is worsening on the both sides."
"We should stem this mutual distrust and pave the way for improving ties," he told the meeting. The committee studies relations in areas ranging from politics and economy to culture and science, and makes proposal to the governments of both countries. Relations have long been strained by unresolved differences over atrocities committed by Japanese troops up to and during World War II. They have been further tested since the nationalist Abe became Japan's prime minister in late 2012.
Last year he visited the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which honours Japan's war dead, including some senior military and political figures convicted of serious crimes. China argues visiting the war shrine is tantamount to glossing over Japan's wartime wrongdoing.