TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan's highest-ranking military officer on Friday urged an early start to a "crisis management" mechanism with China amid conflicting claims to a group of tiny East China Sea islands.
Relations between China and Japan, the world's second- and third-largest economies, have also been strained by the legacy of Japan's wartime occupation of its larger Asian neighbour.
Patrol ships and fighter jets from both countries have shadowed each other regularly near the uninhabited islands, prompting fears an accidental collision or other incident could escalate into a larger conflict.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe agreed this month to start work on maritime crisis management. Such talks have been halted since Japan nationalised three of the disputed islands in September 2012.
"It would allow communication between people at the scene. That's significant," Admiral Katsutoshi Kawano, chief of the Japanese Self-Defence Forces' Joint Staff, told Reuters. "The communication mechanism covers both the navies and air forces. Enabling such communication would be a great step forward in avoiding an unexpected situation. We have been pushing for an early implementation all along."
Under the scheme, apart from hot lines between the two countries, direct communication would be possible between Japanese and Chinese vessels and aircraft.
Kawano said it was too early to say when the plans would come to fruition. "Only when political ties are rebuilt, exchanges between the militaries become possible," he said.
China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also have competing claims in the potentially energy-rich waters of the South China Sea, criss-crossed by shipping lanes crucial for the smooth flow of international trade.