China, Japan reaffirm 'strategic relationship' in rare leader talks

APEC Summit in San Francisco

By Sakura Murakami and Ethan Wang

(Reuters) -Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said they would pursue mutually beneficial relations in their first face-to-face talks in a year, putting emphasis on shared economic interests amid a series of diplomatic disputes.

The leaders of Asia's two largest economies discussed thorny issues such as China's ban on Japanese seafood and the case of a Japanese businessman detained in China on suspicion of espionage during hour-long talks at a hotel in San Francisco on Thursday.

They also pledged to hold high-level dialogue on economic issues and welcomed the launch of a framework to discuss export controls as they met on the sidelines of an Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.

Their countries should "focus on common interests" and reaffirm a "strategic relationship of mutual benefit and give it new meaning", Xi told Kishida as they sat opposite one another at a long table flanked by their delegations.

In a joint statement in 2008, Japan and China agreed to pursue a "mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests" designed to ensure frequent leadership exchanges on issues such as security and economic cooperation.

But the phrasing has been used less frequently in recent years as the historic rivals clashed over issues such as territorial claims, trade tensions and Taiwan, the democratic island that Beijing claims as its own.

Most recently, ties have been tested by a Chinese ban on Japan's seafood following its decision in August to begin releasing treated water from its crippled Fukushima nuclear plant into the sea.

In comments to media after the talks, Kishida said he had strongly urged Xi to drop the ban and also sought the swift release of the detained business executive, an issue that has dealt a blow to their trade ties.

Xi said Japan should take its concerns over the Fukushima water discharge seriously and the two sides agreed to try to resolve the issue through consultations, according to summaries of the talks. The Chinese summary did not mention the case of the Astellas Pharma executive formally arrested last month.

Both sides lauded an initiative to hold regular talks on export controls, an effort to avoid tit-for-tat measures as countries around the world look to limit shipments of sensitive material and technologies abroad.

China has recently imposed curbs on the export of chipmaking metals like gallium, and is expected to restrict exports of graphite, used in batteries, in December. Japan has restricted exports of some chipmaking equipment.

The leaders' meeting followed a highly anticipated summit between U.S. President Joe Biden and Xi in which they agreed to open a presidential hotline and resume military-to-military communications, among other matters.

Kishida also met Biden at the summit and they discussed issues including "common challenges" they share on China.

China's push to reaffirm relations with Japan could be partly driven by its close ties with China's arch-rival Washington, said Rumi Aoyama, an expert on Japan-China relations.

"I think there is a desire to drive a wedge between Japan and the United States by establishing a so-called strategic relationship with Japan amid the U.S.-China confrontation," said Aoyama, director of Waseda Institute of Contemporary Chinese Studies.

On the sidelines of the APEC summit, Kishida has also met South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol for their seventh meeting this year. They promised to push for deeper cooperation and discussed shared concerns like North Korea's missile tests.

Yoon, Kishida and Biden also held a brief trilateral meeting on Thursday.

Leaders from the 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum are in San Francisco for its 30th summit from Nov. 15-17.

(Reporting by Mariko Katsumura, John Geddie, Kaori Kaneko and Sakura Murakami in Tokyo and Ethan Wang in Beijing; Writing by John Geddie; Editing by Stephen Coates and Raju Gopalakrishnan)