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International relations

Japan and China want defense hotline up and running

Abe and Xi look to avoid inadvertent conflict amid territorial tensions

Chinese naval vessels participate in a military exercise in the East China Sea in August 2016. Japan and China aim to prevent accidental air or sea clashes by improving communication.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Japan and China are expected to agree to quickly set up a security hotline and to begin holding regular annual meetings this year between top defense officials in an effort to avoid accidental clashes between their forces in disputed waters.

This step toward fully implementing a sea and air communication mechanism will likely be one of several moves promoting defense-related cooperation to be discussed at Friday's meetings in Beijing between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang.

An arrangement that allows ships and aircraft to communicate over certain radio frequencies to head off collisions began operating in June. The mechanism also calls for each country to alternately host annual meetings between defense chiefs and their deputies to foster trust, but none have been held.

At the summit this week, the leaders are expected to affirm plans to establish a hotline soon between Chinese and Japanese defense authorities. Initially agreed to in June, the hotline is envisioned as a central part of the communication mechanism. But the two countries have yet to work out details such as what level of the hierarchy it will connect at and how each side will manage the link.

The summit agenda is seen including discussions toward signing an accord on maritime search and rescue cooperation at an early date as well as arranging a visit to China by Japan's chief of the Self-Defense Force Joint Staff, the first such trip since 2008.

The two sides are expected to agree to work toward resuming gas field development in the East China Sea soon. Japan and China reached a deal in 2008 to establish a joint development zone straddling the median line between their territorial waters. The agreement would also let Japanese companies invest in an oil and gas field in a disputed area that was at the time being developed solely by China.

But talks stalled as relations soured amid tensions over the Senkaku Islands, which were nationalized by Japan in 2012 but are claimed by China as the Diaoyu. Beijing has continued extracting oil and gas on the Chinese side of the line.

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