China and Japan may not be diplomatically hand-in-hand after yesterday's meeting between President Hu Jintao and new Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, but relations have finally taken the much-needed first step forward. Given the conciliatory tone on both sides after years of verbal animosity and antagonism, a good foundation has been created from which to build the partnership Asia desperately needs from the region's two economic powerhouses. Neither side can afford to let the opportunity pass to build on what has been achieved; the accomplishment, although modest, means too much for Asian prosperity, security and stability. Keeping this firmly in mind will prove difficult in coming months as the two nations flesh out the agreements reached yesterday. But the fact that what was unthinkable a month ago - face-to-face talks between the most important figures from the two countries - has now taken place has opened a window of opportunity. Both sides must now work wholeheartedly to permanently remove the barriers separating them. This will be no mean feat: the history of Japan's invasion and occupation of Asia and the associated atrocities stands in the way and is compounded by nationalism on both sides, a struggle for energy resources, territorial disputes and alliances. An unhealthy rivalry has evolved that extends beyond economic growth data into whether Japan should have a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, like China, and which country is entitled to the lion's share of oil and gas from Russia's Siberian fields. Nor is there a guarantee that Mr Abe will not follow in the footsteps of his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, who froze already frosty ties with yearly visits to Yasukuni Shrine, which honours Japan's war dead, including convicted war criminals. The new leader is at least as conservative as Mr Koizumi and has previously prayed at the memorial. He has also advocated more 'patriotic education' and is seeking to revamp his country's post-war pacifist constitution. Such matters play well with Japanese right-wingers, but Mr Abe has just been elected and has nothing to gain by obstinately pushing the agenda that won him his position at the expense of further worsening relations with neighbouring countries. That is why he was quick to agree, after becoming prime minister two weeks ago, to meetings with the leaders of key rivals China and South Korea. If the words, gestures and sentiments used in Beijing yesterday are any guide, he would do well to shelve or modify such ideas. He invited the mainland's leaders to visit Japan for further talks, a move that was quickly accepted in principle. Similarly, there was agreement to work jointly towards ending North Korea's nuclear programme. While no exact details were given on these and other issues discussed, that they were mentioned or acknowledged represents a big step forward. Mr Hu struck an upbeat note, referring to Mr Abe's hastily arranged visit as 'a positive turn in our relationship'. The Japanese premier, with his counterpart Wen Jiabao by his side, looked to the rain-cleared sky and remarked that he believed that bilateral relations would also enjoy clear skies. Significantly, he apparently also expressed 'deep remorse' for the conduct of Japan's military in Asia during the first half of last century. Words are not the same as actions and much needs to be done before China and Japan can repair relations. But what has been said and the agreements made are the most positive developments possible in the circumstances. With continued efforts carried out in the same vein of reconciliation, they augur well for future ties. In coming months, both sides need to be aware of the sensitivities that could so easily end the thaw. Just as importantly, though, they must focus on the benefits for their own economies and development - and that of Asia as a whole.