Former Japanese prime minister Yasuo Fukuda briefly met President Xi Jinping yesterday in his capacity as chairman of an international conference, but said there was no discussion of bilateral tensions.
Fukuda is serving as chairman of the Boao Forum for Asia, touted as an Asian version of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. The annual Boao meeting is held on Hainan Island .
Fukuda said he and other forum executives attended a meeting with Xi that lasted about 20 minutes during which discussions were focused largely on conference issues.
"It's not the kind of place to talk just about Japan and Japan-China relations," Fukuda said.
No Chinese state media reported the encounter. Still, it marked a rare chance for a high-level meeting as Sino-Japanese ties remain strained since a long-simmering territorial dispute over the Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea, called the Senkakus in Japan, intensified last year.
Liang Yunxiang, a professor of Japanese studies at Peking University, said the meeting between Xi and Fukuda was not very significant.
"As a retired official who has been away from mainstream politics for years, I don't think such a meeting would alleviate the current tension between Beijing and Tokyo," Liang said. "It more feels like a non-governmental communication."
Lian Degui, deputy director of Japanese studies at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, agreed that the meeting between Fukuda and Xi might not bring about major changes, but added that it was still a positive sign given that the territorial dispute has sent bilateral relations to the lowest point in years. "It could pave the way for future meetings between top leaders from the two sides. The relationship between the two countries won't be so bad if such communication continues."
Fukuda, the son of a former prime minister, himself served in the post for a year from September 2007 and has been an influential figure in Japanese politics.
Tensions spiked last September after the Japanese government purchased islets in the Diaoyu chain it did not already own, sparking violent demonstrations in Chinese cities.
Fukuda praised a speech Xi made to forum participants after their meeting in which China's new leader called for settling disputes through dialogue.
Fukuda said what was needed now was for the two sides to step up diplomatic efforts. "And I think it's a matter of how to increase trust between leaders."
Asked whether his attendance at the forum could contribute to such diplomatic efforts at improving relations, Fukuda said: "In general I feel that both sides are of the mind that something needs to be done."