Tokyo - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has called for a summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping to reset relations after an escalation in bilateral tensions, invoking a 2006 visit to Beijing during his first administration, reported the Washington Post yesterday.
"Since there are issues, it is all the more important to have a leaders' meeting," Mr Abe said in an interview with the newspaper conducted last Friday in the Prime Minister's official residence in Tokyo.
"I visited China as prime minister and met with Hu Jintao," he said, referring to a visit during which he reached an agreement on developing bilateral relations.
"Now is the time to go back to that starting point."
The relationship between China and Japan has deteriorated since late last year over the disputed island chain in the East China Sea which Japan calls Senkaku and the Chinese refer to as Diaoyu.
Mr Abe's call last Friday is his most explicit yet for a summit since China's declaration last month of an air defence identification zone (ADIZ) that overlaps with Japan's over the East China Sea and covers the disputed islands.
The United States, Japan and South Korea have called on Beijing to scrap the zone.
Last Friday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei sidestepped reporters' questions on whether China is open to a summit with Japan now, saying Japan should "pursue the same direction as China" by "looking straight at history and reality and doing the right thing on certain issues".
"Japan should respect China's decision on the air defence identification zone and do something real and substantial to improve relations," Mr Hong said.
Some Japanese Cabinet members continue to visit the Yasukuni shrine which honours the country's war dead, including World War II leaders convicted as Class A war criminals.
In the interview last Friday, Mr Abe highlighted the value of ties between Asia's two largest economies, with China benefiting from job gains stemming from Japanese investment, and Japanese companies profiting from earnings on their Chinese business.
Surging tensions have previously triggered demonstrations in China that cost Japanese investors revenues, and this underscores the importance of avoiding similar incidents over the air zone rift.
"The relationship between Japan and China is one that can never be severed," said Mr Abe, who took office for the second time as Prime Minister in December last year.
"We both need each other. Even if we have a problem, we should not allow it to control the whole relationship."
Mr Abe has yet to hold a summit with either Mr Xi or South Korean President Park Geun Hye, amid continuing territorial disputes with both neighbours.
The impasse is a contrast to Mr Abe's 2006-2007 term in office, when he repaired ties with China that had frayed under predecessor Junichiro Koizumi.
Mr Abe agreed with then president Hu to "strive to build a mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests".
Mr Abe, in an April 2007 meeting with then Chinese premier Wen Jiabao, secured an agreement to restart exchanges of defence officials.
But Mr Abe increased his nation's defence budget this year for the first time in 11 years, and the Defence Ministry wants another budget increase for next year - all apparently aimed at China.
Yesterday, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who was in Beijing for the two countries' first bilateral strategic dialogue, downplayed tensions over China's ADIZ following criticism of Canberra's position on the zone by Chinese counterpart Wang Yi at a press briefing chaired by both of them the day before.
"Australia's words and actions on the issue of China's air defence zone have damaged the mutual trust between the two sides," Mr Wang said at the occasion.
Yesterday, Ms Bishop told reporters that discussion of the ADIZ took up only a "small proportion" of time in her talks with Chinese leaders. Most of the time was spent on economic matters, she said.
"Australia is concerned that there be peace and stability in our region and we don't want to see any escalation of the tensions," said Ms Bishop, who left China yesterday.
Washington Post, Reuters