China and Japan should resume talks on establishing a maritime defence communication mechanism and other practical issues, Japan's Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida told the South China Morning Post.
Resolving these issues would reduce the risk of an unintended escalation in territorial tensions in the East China Sea and pave the way for improved relations overall, Kishida said in an exclusive interview with the Post in Tokyo.
He urged China to continue "our candid exchange of views" and hoped the discussions would lead to high-level political talks between the two sides.
His appeal came at time when bilateral ties have been severely strained by disputes over the Diaoyu Islands, known in Japan as the Senkakus, and the visit by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in December to the Yasukuni Shrine that honours the country's war dead, including 14 leading war criminals.
Since that visit, Beijing has suspended most official exchanges with Tokyo and said Chinese leaders would refuse to meet Abe and other senior Japanese officials as the countries became locked in a global public relations battle.
In the latest move to ratchet up political pressure, the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress approved two national remembrance days to commemorate the Nanking massacre and Japan's defeat in the second world war.
The tensions have stoked international concern over the chance of an accidental confrontation between the two countries - the world's second largest and third largest economies after the United States - as Japanese and Chinese fighter jets and patrol ships shadow each other around the Diaoyus.
Kishida said it was necessary and important for both countries to take concrete measures to reduce unnecessary misunderstanding and friction.
"It indeed serves no-one's interest - neither Japan's, China's or relevant countries - to have an accidental incident between the two countries," he said.
To avoid unintended consequences, he said both sides should move ahead to implement a bilateral maritime defence communication mechanism, which has already been agreed in principle.
He said: "Although the Japan-China relationship is at a difficult stage right now, it is important that we continue our candid exchange of views so that various dialogues, such as the maritime communication mechanism, lead to high-level political dialogue. I hope the Chinese side will respond from the same perspective to our call for dialogue."
Throughout the interview, Kishida repeatedly called for dialogue in a conciliatory tone, saying the bilateral relationship was one of the most important for Japan. He said he wanted to advance the mutually beneficial relationship based upon the common strategic interests of the two countries.
"China's peaceful development is a great benefit and opportunity not only for Japan but the entire region and the international community," Kishida said.
He added that Sino-Japanese relations were closer and more mutually dependent on each other than ever before, citing bilateral trade, Japanese investment in China and tourism figures showing that about five million people visited each other's country every year.
Asked if China had responded in any way to Japan's calls for dialogue, Kishida said there had been various talks between the two countries on working-level co-operation and exchanges in the private sector.
In an interesting development, even as Beijing ratcheted up political pressure on Japan, it has quietly begun easing controls over bilateral economic and cultural exchanges imposed since Abe's visit to the Yasukuni Shrine.
Last Monday, Japan announced that the three Chinese delegations representing young rural officials, journalists and middle-school students, which were originally scheduled to visit Japan in January, would resume their visits from later this month.
Kishida defended Abe's visit to the shrine, which drew condemnation from China and South Korea, who both see the shrine as a symbol of Japan's wartime militarism. The visit was even rebuked by Japan's most powerful ally, the United States.
Kishida said Japan's diplomatic policy and recognition of history had not changed at all. "With regard to our relationship with China and [South Korea], I believe it is important to develop a future-oriented, co-operative relationship."
The Chinese foreign ministry agreed with Kishida's suggestion that Sino-Japanese disputes should be resolved through dialogue, but said it had seen no support for such talks from Tokyo.
"China's position in the East China Sea and Diaoyu Islands is consistent," ministry spokesman Qin Gang said yesterday during a daily press briefing .
"We think that both two sides should properly manage their disputes through dialogue and consultations.
"[However], the Japanese government recently stirred up trouble over the Diaoyu Islands issue, and refuses to carry out real and sincere dialogue and negotiation with the Chinese side.
"That's why the two sides have disputes and differences on the Diaoyu Islands issue and issues in the East China Sea.
"We hope the Japanese side will respond sincerely to China's position, face up to facts and history and carry out real consultation with the Chinese side on relevant issues."
For the full transcript of the South China Morning Post’s interview with Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, visit www.scmp.com/kishida