BEIJING, AP - Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took a tentative step toward easing more than two years of high tensions over contested islands and wartime history on Monday with an unsmiling handshake and a short meeting.
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The two men posed briefly in front of cameras, stern-faced, and Abe briefly said something to Xi, who gave no response and looked toward the cameras for the remainder of the handshake.
They then entered a closed room at Beijing's Great Hall of the People for 30 minutes, giving some hope that the two countries could dial down the friction in the talks arranged on the sidelines of this week's Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.
The spat between China and Japan over uninhabited East China Sea islands and other contentious issues has raised concerns of a military confrontation between Asia's two largest economies, which could draw the U.S. into the fray alongside ally Japan.
Although core divisions won't be resolved soon, Abe told reporters afterward that the countries made a "first step" toward reconciliation.
"I believe that not only our Asian neighbors but many other countries have long hoped that Japan and China hold talks," Abe said. "We finally lived up to their expectations and made a first step to improve our ties."
China also has been angry over what it sees as Japan's efforts to play down its brutal 20th century invasion of China, a lingering sore point for its 1.3 billion people.
China's leader must balance the need not to appear too solicitous of Japan, for his domestic audience, while still being statesman enough to host Abe ahead of Tuesday's summit, when the two men will join 19 other world leaders including President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
China hopes to use the consensus-oriented Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit to assert its ambitions for a larger leadership role in U.S.-dominated trade structures.
In a break from the usual protocol, Abe was made to wait for Xi to arrive at the meeting, rather than being greeted by him on arrival. China's Foreign Ministry also described the meeting as being at Abe's "request," a phrase not used in its reports on Xi's meetings with South Korean President Park Geun-hye and other foreign leaders Monday.
China's official Xinhua News Agency said Xi urged Japan to "do more things that help enhance the mutual trust between Japan and its neighboring countries, and play a constructive role in safeguarding the region's peace and stability."
The two sides issued a joint statement on Friday agreeing to gradually resume political, diplomatic and security dialogues and reaffirming the central pillars of their post-World War II relations.
In the statement, Japan said it acknowledged differing views over the status of the islands, called Diaoyu in Chinese and Senkaku in Japan, a concession likely to please Beijing. China has long demanded that Tokyo agree that the islands' sovereignty is in dispute, something Japan has refused to do for fear that would open the floodgates to further Chinese demands.
China and Japan have had poor relations for decades, rooted in Beijing's enduring sense of victimhood and Japanese fears of China's economic and political rise.
Japan's nationalization of the islands in September 2012 infuriated Beijing, sparking anti-Japanese riots and raising regional security fears as Chinese patrol ships repeatedly entered the surrounding waters to confront Japanese coast guard vessels.
China upped the ante last year by declaring an air defense zone over the East China Sea, including the islands. Japan, the U.S. and others denounced the move and refused Chinese demands that their aircraft declare themselves to Beijing when passing through the area.
Abe, a conservative nationalist who was elected in late 2012, infuriated China last year when he visited Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine honoring Japan's war dead, including executed war criminals, an act Beijing said showed Abe's insensitivity to China's suffering during the war.
China had hoped that Abe would pledge not to visit Yasukuni Shrine again while in office, although it wasn't clear if any such commitment was made. For its part, Japan hopes to restore robust economic exchanges with China that have suffered during the tensions, and to gain Beijing's support for a dialogue on maritime safety in the East China Sea.
While anti-Japanese sentiment remains strong among the Chinese public, Xi's apparent willingness to set animosity aside and meet with Abe casts him in the role of global statesman, playing to China's aspirations to be treated as a political equal by the West.
"The meeting marks a turning point in China-Japan relations and lays a good foundation for future developments," said Feng Lei, a professor at the Center for Japanese Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai.
"China needs a peaceful and stable international environment for its growth and an overarching antagonism would be detrimental to both sides," Feng said.
On Tuesday, APEC leaders are due to take up a Chinese-led regional free trade initiative despite American worries that it might distract from a separate U.S.-promoted pact, the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Progress on TPP has bogged down in disagreements about its ambitious market-opening goals.
On Saturday, trade ministers of the 21 APEC economies endorsed a call for the group to launch a study of the Chinese-led initiative, the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific. Chinese analysts say Beijing sees the initiative as a way to boost its role in trade policy.
APEC countries account for 40 percent of global trade, so any progress in market-opening initiatives could have worldwide implications.
The chief U.S. trade envoy, Michael Froman, said Sunday that Washington doesn't see the two initiatives as "being in competition." He said, however, that Washington wants Beijing to focus on making progress on a proposed U.S.-Chinese investment treaty and a regional pact to lower market barriers to trade in information technology.