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As China counts earthquake toll, an olive branch from Tokyo

Chelsea SheasleyThe Christian Science Monitor

The leaders of Asia's two biggest economies, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have yet to meet officially. Both took power in 2012 and tensions have since risen over longstanding territorial and historical disputes. 

Distrust between the Asian neighbors is deeply ingrained. Yet over the past week, Mr. Abe's camp has been signaling that he may have a slight thaw in mind. 

Today Abe sent a message of “heartfelt sympathy and condolences” to China's government and its people after a powerful earthquake in southwestern China on Sunday killed at least 381 people. Kyodo news service reported that Japan said it was ready to provide support.

That response follows signs of progress towards setting up the first official meeting between Abe and Mr. Xi, most likely on the sidelines of an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in November. Japan’s Nikkei Business Daily reported yesterday that preliminary talks on a summit between Xi and Abe will begin shortly.  

On Saturday, Abe, on a swing through Latin America that closely followed Xi’s trip to the region, told reporters that dialogue between the two countries is necessary and it is “important for each of us to make quiet efforts” toward cooperation.

According to the Asahi Shimbum, former Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda used his personal contacts to set up a meeting with Xi in Beijing in late July. The Japan Times reports that Fukuda carried a message from Abe asking for a meeting, and that Xi was receptive.

Nikkei Business Daily said diplomatic sources had confirmed the meeting between Xi and Fukuda, and that it marked a turnaround from Xi’s previous avoidance of meetings with top Japanese officials.

The talk marked a major change for Xi, who had avoided one-on-one meetings with key Japanese officials.Now that the president has shown that he wants to improve Sino-Japanese relations, the focus will turn to setting specific conditions through their diplomatic channels. But many of China's political and military leaders still take a hard-line stance against Japan. Seeking compromise will not be easy, and working-level talks could face obstacles.

Japanese prime ministers have tried to reach out to China before. In 2013, former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama acknowledged during a trip to Beijing that there is a territorial dispute between China and Japan – a nod to Chinese opinion – and visited the Nanjing Memorial that commemorates victimes of a massacre by Japanese troops in 1937. 

But Mr. Hatoyama's conciliatory visit was blasted by Japanese officials, including the defense minister who said "the word of 'traitor' arose in my mind" when he heard of Hatoyama's remarks.

Abe has previously called for a meeting on the sidelines of the APEC summit. Past attempts failed after Beijing insisted that Tokyo acknowledge that there is a territorial dispute over a group of islands in the East China Sea, known as the Senkaku in Japanese and the Daioyu in Chinese.

The Japanese have refused to admit that there is a dispute, instead saying the islands have been administered since 1895 by the Japanese and that the Chinese have no legitimate claim.